02/06/2013 12:50 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

A Lesson to Be Learned From Harvard Cheating Scandal

The Boston Globe reported that Harvard University school officials who completed their investigation of approximately 125 students who cheated on a take-home exam in Spring 2012, recently doled out punishments ranging from students being asked to leave for two semesters to disciplinary probation to some cases being dismissed. In the wake of what has been called Harvard's "largest cheating scandal in recent times," the Globe reports that the faculty has redoubled their efforts to clearly state their principles of academic integrity and have put into place reforms that will help faculty and students avoid similar situations in the future.

I am not about to second guess the decision of any disciplinary board, particularly one from Harvard. It is my hope, however, that in addition to the push for communicating more effectively the principles of academic integrity, that they provide more clarity on what academic integrity means in the modern world. I trust that Harvard faculty and all educators will take pause and use this an opportunity to reevaluate how we evaluate learning in an information age.

Absent the details of the situation, I am not in a position to determine whether or not the students actually cheated or collaborated, as many students claimed they were encouraged to do by their professors. However, the situation raises some intriguing questions. How do we distinguish cheating from collaborative effort, especially when collaboration leads to new ways of knowing and understanding? When A + B + C = D and everybody writes about D on the exam, instead of the A or B or C that they brought to the discussion, is it cheating or collective wisdom?

As an academic and researcher, I was taught clear rules for assigning credit for publication. First or lead authors, co-authorship, and subsequent listings of every contributor were laid out like well-defined street maps. Yet, even these authorship guidelines varied across disciplines. In recent years, the number of multi-authored publications and multi-investigated research projects are more the norm. New ways of knowing require cross-discipline and interdisciplinary learning. New discoveries are the product of team scientists.

Thus, should evaluation of learning take place in a more Wikipedia kind of manner than a take-home exam where the learner must be a solo performer? Are we applying an 18th century definition of academic integrity to a modern world where one can easily access volumes of synthesized information simply with a few key stokes or soft touch of the finger on a computer screen? Let the answers to these questions, however complex they are, be the lessons learned from this "cheating scandal." Ironically, if we gain some insight into these answers, we would all benefit from those who cheated.