Online Cheating

Distance learning—attending classes online without being physically present in a classroom—allows many students to tackle coursework on their own schedules, often enabling students who live far from a particular university to attend classes there without having to move to be there in person. It can be a great option for many students, for many reasons. But distance learning also provides students with the temptation and the ability to cheat, in ways that traditional classrooms do not.

With no professor observing or proctoring tests and most, or even all, work done from the privacy and solitude of the student's home, there is almost nothing stopping a student from taking liberties that would not otherwise be available.

At some point in time, every student has thought about cheating. For some, having the ability to do so, particularly when an assignment is especially difficult or other circumstances collude to make it difficult to study or complete work on time, the temptation can be too much to resist.

Every institution has already given tremendous thought to the issue of academic dishonesty and how to discourage it. For many schools, this means adopting an honor code and attempting to reinforce integrity through a common set of behavior expectations. The honor code typically explains the school's expectations of faculty and students and serves as a contract between the student and the institution. The school is responsible for clearly communicating expectations concerning what students and faculty should and should not do. Students are responsible for being aware of, understanding, and abiding by the values set forth in the honor code and written policy. The honor code and academic misconduct policies apply to distance learning and virtual classrooms just as they do to in-person classrooms.

The Impact of the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the ability for students to cheat in online courses. With little time to prepare, schools had to adjust to online learning, forcing educators who have little to no experience online teaching experience to teach their classes remotely. This means that teachers and administrators are attempting to enforce ethics rules that were designed for an in-person classroom in an online system. Teachers are continuing to rely on plagiarism and cheating detection systems that may have functioned well in a traditional classroom, but are not equipped to monitor virtual settings.

Administrators are having to reassess their academic dishonesty policies, crafted for an in-person campus, to see if the policies will be sufficient in a virtual learning new normal.

For students, it's practically guaranteed that, as educators adapt to a messy, haphazard, new system, students will be falsely accused of cheating or academic misconduct. It's almost certain that teachers who do not understand the new, unfamiliar, technology they've been forced to adopt will misinterpret the technology and falsely accuse a student.

If you have been accused of cheating in a distance learning class, you mustn't respond to the allegations right away. You should read your school's policies, and any updates to those policies that have been made to accommodate the pandemic. You need to make sure you understand what you have been accused of doing and how those actions violate your school's policies before you get upset and insist on your innocence.

These are serious charges that can result in loss of credit and could impact your transcript, class rank, and your ability to meet graduation requirements and to graduate on time. Some charges could even lead to suspension or expulsion. If you are facing these charges, you need to contact an attorney who understands academic dishonesty proceedings, who can help you understand the charges you're facing and help you protect your future.

What to Do if You Have Been Accused of Cheating Online

Once you have been accused of violating your school's academic dishonesty policy, whether it's cheating on a test online, or plagiarism, or not properly adhering to the technology requirements while schools are completely online, you will be in an adversarial position with your school. You will want to object, plead your innocence, and insist to anyone who will listen that it's all been a misunderstanding. It is in your best interest, however, to stay quiet and try to collect as much information as possible. You will do best in the long run if you refrain from talking to anyone, even your friends, about what you have been accused of doing. Instead, you should take this time to find your school's policy on academic misconduct and study it closely.

You should also look carefully to see if your institution's academic misconduct policy has been modified to address the new challenges presented by coronavirus. Many schools have adapted their policies to specifically address the need for most or all coursework to happen in a virtual environment. Your instructor may also have adjusted the syllabus to require additional or different responsibilities for students to prevent academic misconduct.

Not every school has changed its academic misconduct policies in response to the pandemic. Like the rest of the country, many institutions are still trying to catch up to the massive, rapid changes. Many schools will likely continue to adjust their policies as it becomes clear that changes are needed.

Even if school-wide policies have not yet changed, individual teachers will likely have modified their procedures and expectations to meet the moment. Some teachers may have elected to use online proctors for tests and exams, some may have increased their reliance on plagiarism detection programs, and some may have changed their processes for accepting and grading homework, quizzes, tests, and papers.

If you're not sure if your school's policies have changed, you should assume that the academic misconduct rules that applied when your classes met in person also apply to any classes you have that meet online.

Technology Really Can Be Confusing

Though it's difficult in our increasingly wired world to convincingly claim to not understand how to take a class online, indeed, the rapid change from in-person to online classes due to the pandemic may have created a steep learning curve for some students and faculty. You may be able to effectively claim that you really didn't understand the technology or academic misconduct rules. Depending on your situation and what you have been accused of doing, you may be able to say that the instructions you received were unclear, that you didn't understand how the rules applied to online learning, or that you were not able to access an instructor to ask a clarifying question. If you think your most effective defense will be to say that you did not understand the technology, it is especially important that you not participate in any formal investigative or disciplinary proceeding until you have the assistance of a lawyer who understands academic misconduct defense.

Common Forms of Online Academic Dishonesty

The particular freedom that online learning allows has led to the three most common forms of online academic misconduct violations: plagiarism, cheating, and identity misrepresentation.


Plagiarism long predates the internet. Well before students were able to take classes online, or even conduct research online, students were apt to copy the work of others and claim it as their own. Access to information via the internet has made plagiarism much easier and much more common, though. Sometimes students even accidentally plagiarize the work of someone else. There are extreme forms of plagiarism—such as buying an entire term paper online and submitting it as your own work—and more subtle forms of plagiarism—such as claiming a novel idea as your own or copying and using sentences or paragraphs from another paper. Internet technology, however, has also led to plagiarism detection technologies that make it easier for instructors to determine when someone has presented the work of another as their own.


Human beings will always find a way to cheat. Not all humans, and not all the time, but it is to be expected that in any group that is assigned a task there will likely be a few looking to cut corners.

Online learning presents many new opportunities for individuals to cheat because there is no instructor physically watching what students do. Students are more likely to look up answers during tests, use other electronic devices to get answers, and share information between students.

Identity Misrepresentation

Some students have even attempted to cheat by paying someone else to take an entire course for them. Institutions have attempted to address these issues by incorporating technological and other solutions, such as identity authentication programs.

Consequences of Academic Dishonesty

Thought the temptation to cheat in online classes is understandable, the consequences can be severe, and even life-altering. On the lighter end, a student can lose course credit and on the more serious end, the student could lose an academic scholarship or grant, be suspended or expelled from school, and have a notation made in the academic transcript that can prevent them from gaining admission to another university or being hired for a job.

The list of potential punishments and consequences for violating the school's academic misconduct policy will usually be listed in the student handbook. Which consequences are applied will usually depend on what the student did and the faculty member or other individual who brings allegations against the student. Because the consequences are so severe, any student accused of academic misconduct should take the allegations very seriously and seek immediate legal counsel. It is much more difficult to undo consequences that have already been imposed than it is to influence the investigation and hearing process by applying a wise strategy.

Resist the Urge to Resolve the Matter Quickly

It is very important for a student accused of online cheating to recognize from the start that he or she is now in an adversarial relationship with the institution and the faculty. Though both may indeed be open-minded and have good intentions, from the moment the student is accused of cheating, he or she should assume that the school and its faculty members are on the other side.

An instructor or administrator may suggest that the student “just tell the truth” and assure the student that if they do, everything will be fine. However, in too many circumstances, students who do just that soon find themselves suffering consequences worse than they imagined.

In addition, the student may have defenses that could mitigate the consequences that the student has not even considered. For example, the coronavirus pandemic has created a chaotic situation for educational institutions and students. This chaos could mean that a student accused of cheating now has an explanation that was not previously available. If the student rushes to confess to resolve the allegations quickly, the student may lose the opportunity to lessen the impact of potential sanctions.

The student must take the time to listen and understand the allegations that have been made and to thoroughly read any applicable student codes of conduct, as well as any possible consequences, before rushing to engage in the process. There is time to seek help from an experienced lawyer before making decisions that can't be undone.

Gather Your Evidence

While you wait to gain a further understanding of the allegations, policies, and potential sanctions, you should also be sure to save any documentation that might relate to the allegations. This could be information on your computer, phone, tablet, social media account, or any other electronic device. If you're not sure if a document is relevant, save it just in case. What might seem inconsequential right now could end up helping you explain what happened.

In addition, this is a good time for you to familiarize yourself with what type of documents are allowed to be used as evidence. You should not give any documents you have to school administrators or faculty without first getting advice from a lawyer who has experience handling academic misconduct issues. Anything you turn over to school officials can be used against you.

Consider Your Disabilities

Even if you have not previously made your school aware of your disabilities or sought accommodations for issues that you have, you may be able to claim a disability in your online cheating defense to explain what happened or to mitigate consequences.

In addition, the psychological and emotional stress caused by the chaos of the pandemic response, particularly during the haphazard transition to online learning, could have made the impact of an existing disability or mental health condition worse.

Congress has passed many laws to protect students with disabilities and there may be laws in place that can help you in this situation. Likewise, if you have a mental health challenge, such as depression or anxiety, you are entitled to receive support from the school for this disability. If you believe that your disability may have contributed to the circumstances that led to your allegation of online cheating, you should contact the disability office at your school right away to and ask for the necessary modifications that you are entitled to under federal law.

Bring a Lawyer. Even if Your School's Code of Conduct Says You Can't.

Your school's student handbook may state that students are not allowed to have a lawyer present during the actual student conduct proceedings. Many institutions have a policy like this, and many students mistakenly believe that it means they cannot avail themselves of the services of a lawyer. You are, indeed, entitled to have a lawyer—and the outcome of your academic misconduct proceedings will almost certainly be more favorable if you do.

In fact, if you will not be able to have a lawyer in the room with you for the actual proceedings and will be having to advocate for yourself, it's all the more important that you have a lawyer experienced in cheating defense cases to help you prepare for the proceedings. Your lawyer will be able to help you with every aspect of your case right up to the hearing itself, from gathering evidence, rehearsing testimony, preparing for potential lines of questions, to creating an effective defense strategy. Your school's policy may even allow you to bring an “advisor” with you into the proceedings to serve as emotional support. You may be able to bring your lawyer in that role, or your lawyer can help prepare your parent or whomever else you choose to have with you as an advisor.

Your attorney can coach your support on things like how to recognize when you might need a break and how to help settle your nerves so that you're in the best position to advocate effectively for yourself. If the matter does not end in results that you agree with, your lawyer can help you and your support person identify legal options that you are entitled to pursue under state and federal laws.

There's too much riding on the outcome of your online cheating allegations to not take them seriously and you've got too much to lose to take a chance on tackling this matter on your own.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm knows how to help you navigate this difficult, stressful situation. Call us today at 888-535-3686 and let us help you.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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