Ethically speaking: Online education and cheating

By | 2020-04-15T16:10:45-04:00 July 23rd, 2015|17 Comments

Charles is a single dad who has worked as an ED nurse for 15 years. He is enrolled part time in an online acute-care nurse practitioner program. Charles finds it difficult to keep up with all his responsibilities even with just taking one or two courses a semester. When he comes to campus for the first on-campus intensive, he shares his struggles with his classmates. One takes him aside later and offers a survival tip. “Some of the faculty keeps the same assignments every semester. If you can find a buddy or two in the cohort before you, they might be willing to share some of their successfully graded assignments. Just make sure you have different section faculty,” the classmate told him.

“A riskier strategy is to find a buddy in your own cohort and divide up assignments if you are in different sections. That way you can both turn in the same assignment to different faculty.”

Charles knows this is cheating, but he is strongly tempted. Desperate times call for desperate measures, no? Charles makes a deal with a classmate and they both turn in the same assignment Charles wrote to two different faculty. The plan is for Charles’ classmate to do the next assignment, which they also both will submit.

By some quirk of fate they are caught. Both plead extenuating circumstances and make an excellent case for how important it is for them to remain in the program, promising, “We’ve learned our lesson; this will never happen again.” How should the faculty respond? Should both be warned and given another chance? Should their misconduct be reported? Should they be treated the same?

Guidance from the ANA Code of Ethics

Provision 5 of the ANA Code of Ethics for Nurses makes clear that “the nurse owes the same duties to self as to others, including the responsibility to promote health and safety, preserve wholeness of character and integrity, maintain competence, and continue personal and professional growth (p. 19).” Furthermore, “Personal integrity is an aspect of wholeness of character that requires reflection and discernment; its maintenance is a self-regarding duty (p. 20).”

The International Center for Academic Integrity (2013) “defines academic integrity as a commitment, even in face of adversity, to six fundamental values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage. Honesty is an indispensable foundation of teaching, learning, research, and service, and a necessary prerequisite for full realization of trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility.”

Scenario 1

Charles and his partner clearly violated the university’s academic integrity policy, which is articulated in the graduate student handbook. The handbook states that all cases of alleged academic misconduct by students be adjudicated by the dean of the graduate school who appoints a committee to investigate the charge. If the committee determines that the facts as alleged could constitute a violation of the standards of academic integrity, the committee begins an investigation, which could result in sanctions including suspension or dismissal for academic misconduct. Both faculty members deeply regret making this report but believe a review by an impartial panel is most likely to achieve the aims of maintaining university and professional standards and ensuring that the students are treated fairly. The intent of this review is not punitive, but rather that students learn the values of honesty and integrity by going through the process of adjudication. The faculty hopes sanctions will be lenient.

Scenario 2

Charles’ faculty member also is a single parent and closely identifies with Charles’ struggles. She understands she is required to report this instance of possible academic misconduct but believes both students have learned their lesson. She persuades her faculty colleague to give the students a warning and a second chance. While this response is understandable it is ethically problematic because it communicates to the students that integrity can be sacrificed for personal gain, which sets a dangerous precedent as the students transition into their advanced practice responsibilities. Should the students talk about her compassion and other faculty learn about this decision, there could be repercussions for both faculty members.

About the Author:

Carol Taylor, PhD, RN, is a senior clinical scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, a professor of nursing and the former director of the university's Center for Clinical Bioethics. Taylor directs an innovative ethics curriculum grounded in a rich notion of moral agency for advanced practice nurses. She teaches in the undergraduate nursing curriculum, directs a practicum in clinical ethics for graduate students in the philosophy program, conducts ethics rounds and ethics case presentations, and develops professional seminars in clinical ethics for healthcare professionals and the public. Her research interests include clinical and professional ethics, and organizational integrity. She lectures internationally and writes on various issues in healthcare ethics and serves as an ethics consultant to systems and professional organizations. She is the author of "Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins Fundamentals of Nursing: The Art and Science of Nursing Care," which is in its 8th edition, and co-editor of "Health and Human Flourishing: Religion, Medicine and Moral Anthropology" and the 4th edition of "Case Studies in Nursing Ethics."


  1. Ray, RN August 1, 2015 at 9:21 am - Reply

    Both compassion and commitment to the integrity of the program must be balanced. I would have, had I been the instructor, given each student an incomplete and required them to repeat that section. Learning then could have been proved to have occurred, which is the point of school; additionally a lesson that ‘there are no short-cuts’ would have been provided.

  2. Sarah Brown August 1, 2015 at 11:46 am - Reply

    Carol Taylor is clearly a heavyweight when it comes to ethics. I did not appreciate wither of the two scenarios that she presented. I was a single parent while in graduate school. It was a face to face program however, there was ample room for cheating. I didn’t do it. Frankly the schools policy should be followed. How could Charles or either of these faculty members be trusted. Would they treat other students this way? Why does the school have a policy if it is not going to be followed?

    Problems like this are cut and dry. Carol Taylor with her background in ethics should know this.

  3. Lin, RN August 8, 2015 at 10:00 pm - Reply

    I agree with Ray and I would not want either of the two students to take care of me should I need medical care wherever they work.

  4. careen campbell September 20, 2015 at 11:29 pm - Reply

    Agreed! No short cuts! This is a matter of integrity and will impact the professional practice of these students in the long run. We make life and death decisions everyday in our work. How can these students be trusted to do the right thing by their patients, colleagues and organizations. Further, this conduct may well be repeated later as they progress in their educational efforts. Rules are established for a reason and actions have consequences.

    • Beth September 28, 2015 at 6:02 pm - Reply

      It’s interesting to me that as nurses we don’t have compassion for one another. It must be hard to have never made a bad decision. I have made some bad choices in life and I thank God that there are people in this world that gave me a second chance. Please take a look at yourself before judging others. While you are all pointing one finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you. I hope that when you make a mistake there will be people in your life that have compassion.

      • Kelvin January 2, 2016 at 4:52 am - Reply

        Exactly…thank you

  5. Jonelle October 25, 2015 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    We are all human, which means we all make mistakes. Charles, make a mistake. He didn’t make the best choice but hopefully he can learn from it and it will be a better person. People live to judge and hold people hostage for what they have done. How are we as a people suppose to grow? Sometimes, or should I say most of the time humans become better people from the mistake they have made and become great teachers because now they possess the knowledge and experience. I would have given Charles another chance to resubmit the paper and if it was to happen again he would be dismiss from the program.

  6. Amy November 2, 2015 at 5:15 am - Reply

    So quick to judge!! Nurses are held almost to an impossible standard!! I think they should take an incomplete and have to repeat that part of the program!! We need to be compassionate with our fellow nurses!! JMO

  7. Amy G RN OCN November 5, 2015 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    Reading the opinions that harsh judgement be passed makes me cringe a bit. I do not condone cheating. But in my day, we did help each other with homework. If I didn’t know the answer, someone else would and vice versa. Isn’ that learning? I’m not sure I would have ever gone as far as turning in the same papers. But expulsion serves no purpose here except to ruin two lives. It is never too late to learn a lesson in honesty or ethics otherwise, why do they have classes on it in college?

  8. Karen November 12, 2015 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    We have all made mistakes, I don’t think anyone is saying that some are ‘perfect;’ however, as a Registered Nurse my ethics have to be ‘perfect.’ My ethics come from my nursing education and from what I know in my heart is the ‘right thing’ to do. Cheating not only hurts the one who does the cheating, through loss of credibility and respect, it could also hurt the patients they care for. The students in the scenario KNEW they were cheating and they did it anyway. This is simply wrong, and if you take that chance then you have earned the repercussion stated in the graduate handbook. If they get away with cheating in this instance, what ‘corners’ would they deem acceptable’ to cut’ with patients in order to ‘finish their shift’ on time? The more you cheat, the easier it becomes – where, then, does it stop?

  9. Linette January 6, 2016 at 3:40 am - Reply

    Rules and policies exist for a reason. Though Charles was in a desperate situation, there was indeed a better choice he could have made. Helping is quite different from cheating which is clearly what happened when these two set out to deceive their faculty. Not only were their actions deceptive to the faculty but to the university and the nursing profession. One has to stop and think; if someone feels pressured enough to cheat with school, what might they do in the workplace when pressures are too high? Accountability works to help keep us honest. First, we must be accountable to ourselves, and then we must be accountable to each other. There has been much discussion surrounding research and researcher integrity. In light of this article, one has to question where the dishonesty began. Were these now researchers/supposed scholars students who thought it okay to pass off another’s work as their own? Since they were not caught or no repercussions handed down, it must be okay (as long as I am not found out).
    This case arouses a deep passion within me because this happened to me recently in a graduate course. A student copied approximately one-third of my discussion post (word for word) and used it in two separate postings as her own. I reported it! We are all busy but we must not allow our busyness to take us to a place of dishonesty. As professionals, specifically nursing professionals, we must be above reproach. How can we expect people to put their lives in our hands and trust that we will do the right thing when we cannot or will not govern ourselves?

    • Saleemah Muhammad April 5, 2016 at 3:24 am - Reply

      Plagiarism in any form is not tolerated in any university. That is what Charles and his classmate were clearly guilty of and therefore should been disciplined accordingly. The person who copied your post and used it as her own was also guilty of plagiarism. As a former doctoral on-line student my school has a strict policy against academic dishonesty. If we used our discussions from a previous class we were required to state it in our post. All of our work had to be original.

  10. Joyce April 28, 2016 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    It is never right to do wrong in order to do right. Policies are made for a reason and should be upheld–how else can you stay straight? I’d hate to have to remember what I did for this student in this situation and then what I did for another in similar situation…it gets muddy. Clear water will stay clear if it isn’t stirred up.

  11. Carol August 6, 2016 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    Obviously both students were white or they wouldn’t have received a reprieve of any sort but would’ve received the ultimate punishment and been kicked out of the program. They should’ve both been expelled, because what happens when someone else does it, whomever they may be, everyone has pressures and responsibilities , if you do something your not suppose to take your medicine deal with the consequences and move on. Are these people going to cheat their way thru life because it’s convienent or they’re experiencing a rough patch and what happens when when they graduate and they’re taking care of patients are they going to cheat in administering pt care?

    • Doreen B March 5, 2023 at 6:27 am - Reply

      My thoughts also

  12. Doreen Tan October 14, 2016 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    I am an educator in nursing and I do not tolerate cheating. Whether Charles and his friend was in desperate situation, still…. They have no integrity. They should be given an incomplete and redo the course…. we cannot talking about compassion for cheaters.
    Sad but true. I have known a few of my colleagues and nursing friends sharing assignments with the on-line classes they are taking together. Will you consider this as group study, with the same paper…. I don’t!!

    Please comment.

  13. Yolanda August 4, 2017 at 9:21 pm - Reply

    I know of 4 NPs who have graduated with the help of friends who were graduates taking their online tests for them. I would never allow them to evaluate or treat anyone in my family.

Leave A Comment