Online Cheating Charges Upend Dartmouth Medical School

HANOVER, N.H. — Sirey Zhang, a first-year student at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, was on spring break in March when he received an email from administrators accusing him of cheating.

Dartmouth had reviewed Mr. Zhang’s online activity on Canvas, its learning management system, during three remote exams, the email said. The data indicated that he had looked up course material related to one question during each test, honor code violations that could lead to expulsion, the email said.

Mr. Zhang, 22, said he had not cheated. But when the school’s student affairs office suggested he would have a better outcome if he expressed remorse and pleaded guilty, he said he felt he had little choice but to agree. Now he faces suspension and a misconduct mark on his academic record that could derail his dream of becoming a pediatrician.

“What has happened to me in the last month, despite not cheating, has resulted in one of the most terrifying, isolating experiences of my life,” said Mr. Zhang, who has filed an appeal.

Dartmouth recently accused of cheating on remote tests while in-person exams were shut down because of the coronavirus. The allegations have prompted an on-campus protest, letters of concern to school administrators from more than two dozen faculty members and complaints of unfair treatment from the student government, turning the pastoral Ivy League campus into a national battleground over escalating school surveillance during the pandemic.

insecure, unfair and inaccurate.

cease using the exam-monitoring tools.

“These kinds of technical solutions to academic misconduct seem like a magic bullet,” said Shaanan Cohney, a cybersecurity lecturer at the University of Melbourne who researches remote learning software. But “universities which lack some of the structure or the expertise to understand these issues on a deeper level end up running into really significant trouble.”

At Dartmouth, the use of Canvas in the cheating investigation was unusual because the software was not designed as a forensic tool. Instead, professors post assignments on it and students submit their homework through it.

That has raised questions about Dartmouth’s methodology. While some students may have cheated, technology experts said, it would be difficult for a disciplinary committee to distinguish cheating from noncheating based on the data snapshots that Dartmouth provided to accused students. And in an analysis of the Canvas software code, The Times found instances in which the system automatically generated activity data even when no one was using a device.

“If other schools follow the precedent that Dartmouth is setting here, any student can be accused based on the flimsiest technical evidence,” said Cooper Quintin, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization, who analyzed Dartmouth’s methodology.

Seven of the 17 accused students have had their cases dismissed. In at least one of those cases, administrators said, “automated Canvas processes are likely to have created the data that was seen rather than deliberate activity by the user,” according to a school email that students made public.

The 10 others have been expelled, suspended or received course failures and unprofessional-conduct marks on their records that could curtail their medical careers. Nine pleaded guilty, including Mr. Zhang, according to school documents; some have filed appeals.

Dr. Compton acknowledged that the investigation had caused distress on campus. But he said Geisel, founded in 1797 and one of the nation’s oldest medical schools, was obligated to hold its students accountable.

“We take academic integrity very seriously,” he said. “We wouldn’t want people to be able to be eligible for a medical license without really having the appropriate training.”

Instructure, the company that owns Canvas, did not return requests for comment.

In January, a faculty member reported possible cheating during remote exams, Dr. Compton said. Geisel opened an investigation.

To hinder online cheating, Geisel requires students to turn on ExamSoft — a separate tool that prevents them from looking up study materials during tests — on the laptop or tablet on which they take exams. The school also requires students to keep a backup device nearby. The faculty member’s report made administrators concerned that some students may have used their backup device to look at course material on Canvas while taking tests on their primary device.

administrators held a virtual forum and were barraged with questions about the investigation. The conduct review committee then issued decisions in 10 of the cases, telling several students that they would be expelled, suspending others and requiring some to retake courses or repeat a year of school at a cost of nearly $70,000.

Many on campus were outraged. On April 21, dozens of students in white lab coats gathered in the rain in front of Dr. Compton’s office to protest. Some held signs that said “BELIEVE YOUR STUDENTS” and “DUE PROCESS FOR ALL” in indigo letters, which dissolved in the rain into blue splotches.

Several students said they were now so afraid of being unfairly targeted in a data-mining dragnet that they had pushed the medical school to offer in-person exams with human proctors. Others said they had advised prospective medical students against coming to Dartmouth.

“Some students have built their whole lives around medical school and now they’re being thrown out like they’re worthless,” said Meredith Ryan, a fourth-year medical student not connected to the investigation.

That same day, more than two dozen members of Dartmouth’s faculty wrote a letter to Dr. Compton saying that the cheating inquiry had created “deep mistrust” on campus and that the school should “make amends with the students falsely accused.”

In an email to students and faculty a week later, Dr. Compton apologized that Geisel’s handling of the cases had “added to the already high levels of stress and alienation” of the pandemic and said the school was working to improve its procedures.

The medical school has already made one change that could reduce the risk of false cheating allegations. For remote exams, new guidelines said, students are now “expected to log out of Canvas on all devices prior to testing.”

Mr. Zhang, the first-year student, said the investigation had shaken his faith in an institution he loves. He had decided to become a doctor, he said, to address disparities in health care access after he won a fellowship as a Dartmouth undergraduate to study medicine in Tanzania.

Mr. Zhang said he felt compelled to speak publicly to help reform a process he found traumatizing.

“I’m terrified,” he said. “But if me speaking up means that there’s at least one student in the future who doesn’t have to feel the way that I did, then it’s all worthwhile.”

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Could the Pandemic Prompt an ‘Epidemic of Loss’ of Women in the Sciences?

Like many women during the pandemic, Alisa Stephens found working from home to be a series of wearying challenges.

Dr. Stephens is a biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania, and the technical and detail-oriented nature of her work requires long uninterrupted stretches of thought. Finding the time and mental space for that work with two young children at home proved to be an impossibility.

“That first month was really hard,” she recalled of the lockdown. Her infant daughter’s day care was closed, and her 5-year-old was at home instead of at school. With their nanny unable to come to the house, Dr. Stephens tended to her children all day and worked late into the evening. In the fall, when her daughter was set to begin kindergarten, the schools did not reopen.

Things eased once the family could safely bring in a nanny, but there was still little time for the deep thought Dr. Stephens had relied on each morning for her work. Over time, she has adjusted her expectations of herself.

studies have found that women have published fewer papers, led fewer clinical trials and received less recognition for their expertise during the pandemic.

Add to that the emotional upheaval and stress of the pandemic, the protests over structural racism, worry about children’s mental health and education, and the lack of time to think or work, and an already unsustainable situation becomes unbearable.

“The confluence of all of these factors creates this perfect storm. People are at their breaking point,” said Michelle Cardel, an obesity researcher at the University of Florida. “My big fear is that we are going to have a secondary epidemic of loss, particularly of early career women in STEM.”

Female scientists were struggling even before the pandemic. It was not unusual for them to hear that women were not as smart as men, or that a woman who was successful must have received a handout along the way, said Daniela Witten, a biostatistician at the University of Washington in Seattle. Some things are changing, she said, but only with great effort, and at a glacial pace.

steep for mothers. Even during maternity leave, they are expected to keep up with lab work, teaching requirements, publications and mentoring of graduate students. When they return to work, most do not have affordable child care.

Women in academia often have little recourse when confronted with discrimination. Their institutions sometimes lack the human resources structures common in the business world.

it will be far from enough.

“It’s sort of like if you’re drowning, and the university tells you, ‘Don’t worry if it takes you an extra year to get back to shore,’” Dr. Witten said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, that’s not helpful. I need a flotation device.’”

study on female scientists was published in the influential journal Nature Communications, suggesting that having female mentors would hinder the career of young scientists and recommending that the young women instead seek out men to help them.

The response was intense and unforgiving.

Hundreds of scientists, male and female, renounced the paper’s flawed methods and conclusions, saying it reinforced outdated stereotypes and neglected to take structural biases in academia into account.

“The advice from the paper was basically similar to advice your grandmother may have given you 50 years ago: Get yourself a man who will take care of you, and all will be fine,” Dr. Cardel said.

Nearly 7,600 scientists signed a petition calling on the journal to retract the paper — which it did on Dec. 21.

The study arrived at a time when many female scientists were already worried about the pandemic’s effect on their careers, and already on edge and angry with a system that offered them little support.

“It’s been an incredibly difficult time to be a woman in science,” said Leslie Vosshall, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York. “We’re already on the ground, we’re already on our knees — and then the paper just comes and kicks us to say: ‘We have the solution, let’s move the graduate students to a senior man.’”

reconsidered their dude walls, Dr. Vosshall said. “There are some traditions that should not be perpetuated.”

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How to Virtually Become a Doctor

Jerrel Catlett’s eyes narrowed on the large intestine, a gloppy, glow stick-like object whose color matched the stool stored inside of it. He chose to isolate the organ, and it expanded on his screen as the body parts surrounding it receded — the gall bladder bright green with bile, the ribs white and curved like half moons.

“My old boss used to tell me that when I did this, I’d be so wowed by how complex the human body is,” said Mr. Catlett, 25, a first-year student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, gesturing to the image of a body on his laptop screen. “But it feels like there’s something missing from the experience right now.”

For generations, medical students were initiated to their training by a ritual as gory as it was awe-inducing: the cadaver dissection. Since at least the 14th century, physicians have honed their understanding of human anatomy by examining dead bodies. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, the cadaver dissection — like many hands-on aspects of the medical curriculum — turned virtual, using a three-dimensional simulation software.

Of the country’s 155 medical schools, a majority transitioned at least part of their first and second-year curriculums to remote learning during the pandemic. Nearly three-quarters offered lectures virtually, according to a survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges, and 40 percent used virtual platforms to teach students how to interview patients about their symptoms and take their medical histories. Though the cadaver dissection posed a trickier challenge, nearly 30 percent of medical schools, including Mount Sinai, used online platforms to teach anatomy.

expands. Through remote clerkships at schools like Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, medical students assisted hospital staff by following up virtually with patients who had been discharged earlier than usual because of the pandemic.

“Other doctors got thrown into the deep end but we get to practice using this technology,” said Ernesto Rojas, a second-year student at University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. “We learned how to build rapport and ask the patient things like, ‘Are you in a place where you can talk privately?’”

Students have also said they’ve felt particularly motivated to complete their training amid the pandemic. Medical school applications are up by 18 percent compared with this time last year, according to the A.A.M.C.

For Prerana Katiyar, 22, a first-year medical student at Columbia, the first few months of medical school didn’t look anything like she had anticipated. She started the semester living in her childhood home in Fairfax, Va., where she shared lessons from her anatomy classes with her family over dinner. “When my dad said his abdomen hurt, I was able to talk to him about the quadrants of the abdomen,” Ms. Katiyar said.

Halfway into the semester, she had an exciting update for her parents. “My skull finally arrived in the mail,” she said. Ms. Katiyar’s anatomy professor arranged for each student to order a plastic model of the skull.

“Now I can see the bony landmarks and where the nerves are,” she continued. “I’m a very visual person so it’s been helpful to trace it with my finger.”

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