Update, April 16, 2021: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) points out that Dartmouth has publicly expressed a commitment to upholding free speech and dissent on campus.  The medical school should strive to uphold these policies, and as FIRE argues, they may even be considered contracts that the school has breached with its social media policy that prohibits "disparaging" and "inappropriate" online speech.

Like many schools, Dartmouth College has increasingly turned to technology to monitor students taking exams at home. And while many universities have used proctoring tools that purport to help educators prevent cheating, Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine has gone dangerously further. Apparently working under an assumption of guilt, the university is in the midst of a dragnet investigation of complicated system logs, searching for data that might reveal student misconduct, without a clear understanding of how those logs can be littered with false positives. Worse still, those attempting to assert their rights have been met with a university administration more willing to trust opaque investigations of inconclusive data sets rather than their own students.

The Boston Globe explains that the medical school administration’s attempts to detect supposed cheating have become a flashpoint on campus, exemplifying a worrying trend of schools prioritizing misleading data over the word of their students. The misguided dragnet investigation has cast a shadow over the career aspirations of over twenty medical students.

Dartmouth medical school has cast suspicion on students by relying on access logs that are far from concrete evidence of cheating

What’s Wrong With Dartmouth’s Investigation

In March, Dartmouth’s Committee on Student Performance and Conduct (CSPC) accused several students of accessing restricted materials online during exams. These accusations were based on a flawed review of an entire year’s worth of the students’ log data from Canvas, the online learning platform that contains class lectures and information. This broad search was instigated by a single incident of confirmed misconduct, according to a contentious town hall between administrators and students (we've re-uploaded this town hall, as it is now behind a Dartmouth login screen). These logs show traffic between students’ devices and specific files on Canvas, some of which contain class materials, such as lecture slides. At first glance, the logs showing that a student’s device connected to class files would appear incriminating: timestamps indicate the files were retrieved while students were taking exams. 

But after reviewing the logs that were sent to EFF by a student advocate, it is clear to us that there is no way to determine whether this traffic happened intentionally, or instead automatically, as background requests from student devices, such as cell phones, that were logged into Canvas but not in use. In other words, rather than the files being deliberately accessed during exams, the logs could have easily been generated by the automated syncing of course material to devices logged into Canvas but not used during an exam. It’s simply impossible to know from the logs alone if a student intentionally accessed any of the files, or if the pings exist due to automatic refresh processes that are commonplace in most websites and online services. Most of us don’t log out of every app, service, or webpage on our smartphones when we’re not using them.

Much like a cell phone pinging a tower, the logs show files being pinged in short time periods and sometimes being accessed at the exact second that students are also entering information into the exam, suggesting a non-deliberate process. The logs also reveal that the files accessed are largely irrelevant to the tests in question, also indicating  an automated, random process. A UCLA statistician wrote a letter explaining that even an automated process can result in multiple false-positive outcomes. Canvas' own documentation explicitly states that the data in these logs "is meant to be used for rollups and analysis in the aggregate, not in isolation for auditing or other high-stakes analysis involving examining single users or small samples." Given the technical realities of how these background refreshes take place, the log data alone should be nowhere near sufficient to convict a student of academic dishonesty. 

Along with The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), EFF sent a letter to the Dean of the Medical School on March 30th, explaining how these background connections work and pointing out that the university has likely turned random correlations into accusations of misconduct. The Dean’s reply was that the cases are being reviewed fairly. We disagree.

For the last year, we’ve seen far too many schools ignore legitimate student concerns about inadequate, or overbroad, anti-cheating software

It appears that the administration is the victim of confirmation bias, turning fallacious evidence of misconduct into accusations of cheating. The school has admitted in some cases that the log data appeared to have been created automatically, acquitting some students who pushed back. But other students have been sanctioned, apparently entirely based on this spurious interpretation of the log data. Many others are anxiously waiting to hear whether they will be convicted so they can begin the appeal process, potentially with legal counsel. 

These convictions carry heavy weight, leaving permanent marks on student transcripts that could make it harder for them to enter residencies and complete their medical training. At this level of education, this is not just about being accused of cheating on a specific exam. Being convicted of academic dishonesty could derail an entire career. 

University Stifles Speech After Students Express Concerns Online

Worse still, following posts from an anonymous Instagram account apparently run by students concerned about the cheating accusations and how they were being handled, the Office of  Student Affairs introduced a new social media policy.

An anonymous Instagram account detailed some concerns students have with how these cheating allegations were being handled (accessed April 7). As of April 15, the account was offline.

The policy was emailed to students on April 7 but backdated to April 5—the day the Instagram posts appeared. The new policy states that, "Disparaging other members of the Geisel UME community will trigger disciplinary review." It also prohibits social media speech that is not “courteous, respectful, and considerate of others” or speech that is “inappropriate.” Finally, the policy warns, "Students who do not follow these expectations may face disciplinary actions including dismissal from the School of Medicine." 

One might wonder whether such a policy is legal. Unfortunately, Dartmouth is a private institution and so not prohibited by the First Amendment from regulating student speech.

If it were a public university with a narrower ability to regulate student speech, the school would be stepping outside the bounds of its authority if it enforced the social media policy against medical school students speaking out about the cheating scandal. On the one hand, courts have upheld the regulation of speech by students in professional programs at public universities under codes of ethics and other established guidance on professional conduct. For example, in a case about a mortuary student’s posts on Facebook, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that a university may regulate students’ social media speech if the rules are “narrowly tailored and directly related to established professional conduct standards.” Similarly, in a case about a nursing student’s posts on Facebook, the Eleventh Circuit held that “professional school[s] have discretion to require compliance with recognized standards of the profession, both on and off campus, so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” On the other hand, the Sixth Circuit has held that a university can’t invoke a professional code of ethics to discipline a student when doing so is clearly a “pretext” for punishing the student for her constitutionally protected speech.

Although the Dartmouth medical school is immune from a claim that its social media policy violates the First Amendment, it seems that the policy might unfortunately be a pretext to punish students for legitimate speech. Although the policy states that the school is concerned about social media posts that are “lapses in the standards of professionalism,” the timing of the policy suggests that the administrators are sending a message to students who dare speak out against the school’s dubious allegations of cheating. This will surely have a chilling effect on the community to the extent that students will refrain from expressing their opinions about events that occur on campus and affect their future careers. The Instagram account was later taken down, indicating that the chilling effect on speech may have already occurred. (Several days later, a person not affiliated with Dartmouth, and therefore protected from reprisal, has reposted many of the original Instagram's posts.)

Students are at the mercy of private universities when it comes to whether their freedom of speech will be respected. Students select private schools based on their academic reputation and history, and don’t necessarily think about a school’s speech policies. Private schools shouldn’t take advantage of this, and should instead seek to sincerely uphold free speech principles.

Investigations of Students Must Start With Concrete Evidence

Though this investigation wasn’t the result of proctoring software, it is part and parcel of a larger problem: educators using the pandemic as an excuse to comb for evidence of cheating in places that are far outside their technical expertise. Proctoring tools and investigations like this one flag students based on flawed metrics and misunderstandings of technical processes, rather than concrete evidence of misconduct. 

Simply put: these logs should not be used as the sole evidence for potentially ruining a student’s career. 

Proctoring software that assumes all students take tests the same way—for example, in rooms that they can control, their eyes straight ahead, fingers typing at a routine pace—puts a black mark on the record of students who operate outside the norm. One problem that has been widely documented with proctoring software is that students with disabilities (especially those with motor impairment) are consistently flagged as exhibiting suspicious behavior by software suites intended to detect cheating. Other proctoring software has flagged students for technical snafus such as device crashes and Internet cuts out, as well as completely normal behavior that could indicate misconduct if you squint hard enough.

For the last year, we’ve seen far too many schools ignore legitimate student concerns about inadequate, or overbroad, anti-cheating software. Across the country, thousands of students, and some parents, have created petitions against the use of proctoring tools, most of which (though not all) have been ignored. Students taking the California and New York bar exams—as well as several advocacy organizations and a group of deans—advocated against the use of proctoring tools for those exams. As expected, many of those students then experienced “significant software problems” with the Examsoft proctoring software, specifically, causing some students to fail. 

Many proctoring companies have defended their dangerous, inequitable, privacy-invasive, and often flawed software tools by pointing out that humans—meaning teachers or administrators—usually have the ability to review flagged exams to determine whether or not a student was actually cheating. That defense rings hollow when those reviewing the results don’t have the technical expertise—or in some cases, the time or inclination—to properly examine them.

Similar to schools that rely heavily on flawed proctoring software, Dartmouth medical school has cast suspicion on students by relying on access logs that are far from concrete evidence of cheating. Simply put: these logs should not be used as the sole evidence for potentially ruining a student’s career. 

The Dartmouth faculty has stated that they will not continue to look at Canvas logs in the future for violations (51:45 into the video of the town hall). That’s a good step forward. We insist that the school also look beyond these logs for the students currently being investigated, and end this dragnet investigation entirely, unless additional evidence is presented.