UNCW experienced an uptick of cheating allegations in the era of Zoom classes

With virtual classes at the forefront of college life last year, there were 64 more instances of cheating at UNCW in fall 2020 than there were in fall 2019. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON –– The coronavirus pandemic spurred dramatic changes to life on college campuses this past year. Classes relocated from lecture halls to laptop screens. Gathering in groups became taboo. But Covid-19 didn’t just change the ways students learn and live; it also changed the way they cheat. 

As Zoom classes swept the nation, education tech companies like Chegg and Quizlet also experienced a meteoric rise. These platforms store educational materials across a wide array of disciplines, including answers to homework assignments and exams for college classes nationwide.

The fall ’20 semester was held largely online at UNCW, with over 60% of classes meeting virtually. Less than 15% of classes met consistently for face-to-face instruction. The remaining classes were conducted as a hybrid of both methods.


“It’s safe to say this has been the year of Chegg related to the increase [of] on-line course modalities,” UNCW Dean of Students Mike Walker wrote in an email to Port City Daily.

In the time since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic last March, the stock price of Chegg moved from around $40 to a high of $113 in February 2021, and sits at $75 as of Wednesday. The company is valued at more than $12 billion. 

Chegg employs a team of more than 70,000 freelance subject-matter experts in India who provide rapidfire responses to user-submitted questions, often in under an hour. Its flagship $14.95-per-month service, Chegg Study, has at least 3.7 million subscriptions. 

It is widely known that homework assignments and test questions for college classes often find their way onto the internet. The number of cheating allegations handled at UNCW substantially increased during the fall ’20 semester, when compared to fall ’19. 

“We are attempting to mitigate this by increasing education of faculty about use of new cheating mediums, such as Chegg,” Walker wrote. “A presentation was provided to academic deans in the fall semester about online cheating modalities, including providing examples of how students might use Chegg to cheat.”

Under the UNCW Student Academic Honor Code, age-old cheating tactics, like plagiarism and impermissible collaboration, are clearly defined as against the rules; so is the “commercial use, display, or dissemination” of class materials without instructor permission. 

When a faculty member suspects a student of cheating at UNCW, a few pathways open. More often than not, the matter is handled in a private resolution for first-time offenders, in which the student admits guilt and receives a penalty. 

“Penalties can range from a failing grade on the work in question to a failing grade in the course,” according to the UNCW Code of Student Life

If the student does not admit guilt, the dean of students facilitates a hearing: either in front of a single administrator or the honor board, which is made up of both students and faculty. 

In fall ’19, 120 students were found guilty of cheating through one of the three disciplinary routes: private resolution, an administrative hearing, or an honor board hearing. In fall ’20, 184 students were determined to have cheated. 

The standard of proof for academic dishonesty violations at UNCW is a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning if the evidence shows a greater than 50% likelihood that a student cheated, they are found responsible. 

In fall ’19, there were 26 allegations of academic dishonesty referred to the dean of students office that were dropped and not pursued. In fall ’20, that number increased to 41. 

According to data provided by UNCW in a public records request, only a single honor board hearing in fall ’20 led to a finding of “not responsible.” A request for “not responsible” verdicts from fall ’19 hearings returned no relevant records. 

A study released in February in the International Journal for Educational Integrity analyzed the content on Chegg in five different STEM fields. The number of answer-request postings on the platform was 196.25% higher in April-August 2020 than it was in that same period in 2019.

“This increase corresponds with the time when many courses moved to be delivered and assessed online,” the authors wrote. “The growing number of requests indicates that students are using Chegg for assessment and exam help frequently and in a way that is not considered permissible by universities.”

In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, the director of academic relations for Chegg disputed the findings of the study, saying they were not evidence-based and showed correlation rather than causation. “With millions of students going online in a matter of months, students have lost valuable on-campus and faculty support services, and stress and anxiety is high,” the Chegg official told Inside Higher Ed. “Chegg provides much needed learning support to these students, especially during the pandemic.”

A spokesperson for Chegg told Port City Daily the company “takes academic integrity extremely seriously. We have significantly scaled our efforts to support it during the pandemic, including launching a free and easy-to-use product for faculty: Honor Shield.” 

Chegg’s Honor Shield service allows instructors to provide the company with a copy of their planned exam. During a specific window of time — when the exam will be taken — Chegg will intercept and disable any postings that match the instructor’s exam content. Chegg also willingly communicates with universities investigating cheating allegations. According to the company’s policies, “we will share usage information — including name, email, date, IP, and time stamps.”

Another popular study aid website, Course Hero, is unreachable on campus WiFi because the university’s vendor Cisco “designated Course Hero as academic fraud,” according to UNCW Chief Information Officer Sharyne Miller.

 “Chegg has been open and communicative with the university regarding academic dishonesty allegations through their online reporting portal,” Walker wrote. 

This coming fall, in-person instruction will return en masse at UNCW and Zoom classes will no longer be the dominant modality. 

“With fewer on-line courses in the fall we don’t anticipate the same issues as this year related to on-line cheating,” Walker wrote. “Our expectations around the honor code and academic integrity have not changed during Covid. They have always been very high.”


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