09/04/2012 01:32 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

Crimson Handed

A scandal at Harvard University could indict a hundred-plus students for cheating on an exam last spring. Harvard released a statement Thursday confirming speculation of a forthcoming investigation into the matter, revealing that it has contacted and will meet with "nearly half of the more than 250 enrolled students" accused of collaborating on a final. Though Harvard has not released the name of the course in question, numerous students and media outlets have confirmed "Introduction to Congress" is the center of uproar. Specifically, its poorly-worded exam instructions told students they could use the Internet. This problem is one relevant to any university coming to terms with cheating in a digital age.

Student testimonials described "Introduction to Congress" as a would-be blow-off, a lax entertainment. These students cited a culture where working in groups was permitted during the semester; where, moreover, teaching assistants had obliged them with help up to and including the final. Now, facing a school-wide investigation with the threat of a one-year suspension or a revocation of degree for graduates, students of the course are crying foul. Given that upwards of 125 students are under scrutiny, many have protested that the matter stems from structural flaws rather than organized cheating in an introductory class.

The school, while looking into punitive measures, has announced the typical, educative courses of action. It will organize a committee. It will start "a campuswide discussion" with the hopes of "building awareness," according to the Harvard Gazette, the university-sponsored newspaper. It may even consider the introduction of an honor code.

Such secondary measures ignore the problem at hand, however. Students at Harvard are right to point out the main flaw is not with undergraduate integrity but the wording of the final, a take-home. The test presented a notice promising students "The exam is completely open book, open note, open internet, etc..." while admonishing "students may not discuss the exam with others," including the teaching assistants, who allegedly violated this very rule.

With our honor committee and code and familiarity with take-homes, you would hope University students would have taken this test correctly. But even we would not know what to make of the phrase, "open Internet." What does such a phrase mean? If "open Internet" merely meant students could access course material online, why would such words be needed after "open note?" Is it not a contradiction to ask that students refrain from working with others, yet remind and so encourage them to seek help online? To present such a dilemma to students, impromptu and without clarification, is the fault of the teacher; to only begin an investigation the next semester -- after students have moved on or graduated -- is a fault of the school.

Questions about individual work and digital collaboration as of yet are unanswered. This will become a larger problem as schools, such as the University, begin to put lectures online -- imagine thousands of students in an online course guilty of using the "open Internet" to work with each other. This being Harvard, its administration has the chance to adopt a policy that could influence the academic standards committees at other schools. Luckily, at Harvard, the students may only face a suspension. Here, the University must decide the appropriateness and meaning of "open Internet" tests before someone gets kicked out of school.