#WomenEd Thailand: Ethical Student Behaviour in Online Learning

by Punam Mohandas @PunamMohandas

One of the most common scenarios the unexpected COVID-19 situation created globally was to propel students into cyber classrooms, as online learning became the new order of the day. Although e-learning is certainly not new, it has become a more sought-after and viable proposition in recent years as students combine higher studies with simultaneously holding down jobs. However, apart from throwing up several unpalatable prospects such as the lack of face-to-face interaction with teachers and peers and lack of student engagement and motivation, e-learning also highlights unethical student behavior like cheating, plagiarism, or taking help from parents or friends in order to complete assignments.

To be candid, having heard of unique stories from various colleagues, I used to anticipate my walks around the hall while proctoring exams with some glee, poking into pencil and spectacle cases and rifling through innocent looking Post-It pads. Unlike the attached photo which I came across randomly on social media, the most I ever found was this Mentos sweet empty wrapper in an otherwise neat pencil case. It struck me as rather odd – I turned it over and there were some equations written in Thai so tiny as to be almost indecipherable!

Exam cheating 3


Interestingly, the concept of academic cheating as promulgated by Western societies is not quite followed in Thailand, where students sharing knowledge with each other, yes, even in graded assignments, is viewed as “helping” one’s friends and fostering emotional relationships with classmates. Culturally, here, inter-personal relationships are far more important than advancing oneself. I recall an incident that happened some years ago when I was a corporate English trainer for the BTS train staff; there were two capsules running parallel and so I joked with the topper student in my section that he would have to compete with so-and-so from the other section to see who would come first in the exam. I still remember with clarity how aghast he was. “He is my friend, how can he be my competition”? was the response. This interpretation of the situation struck me as so novel that I still remember it, years later! It is therefore really important to set aside Western mindsets whether one is teaching in China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, etc; enjoying a more exotic culture is not just about tasting different food or learning about festivals and traditional attire; it manifests itself deeper than that, as we shall see from the below.

Two Thai students – a girl and a boy - turned in the very same graded English assignment. Since it was difficult to know who actually wrote it – who first emailed it across not being sufficient proof of who wrote it – both students were marked as zero. Upon investigating the matter further, it turned out that apparently, the boy claimed he had not understood what was required of him, so he not only asked this girl for help, but another male student as well, both of whom then sent him their own assignments in a bid to make him “understand”. The girl’s parent intervened and claimed that her daughter had just sent her work to her classmate as an “example”, conveniently overlooking the fact that there are NO “examples” provided in graded assignments! It is clear from the above example that both students are equally guilty and one should not simplify matters by attempting to make this into a “gender” issue.

This may come across as misandry but that is far from my intention, nonetheless, from my observations and experience I feel that more women than men are inclined to be empathetic and considerate towards keeping cultural norms in mind while being educators abroad, especially of English, which can be complex and challenging to learn. Students too gravitate more naturally towards women teachers; it is pertinent to note that in Asian countries (certainly true in India, Thailand, Japan, etc), a teacher is often considered as the ultimate authority, the “guru”, on par with parental figures. Hence, just as the mother is the nurturer and the carer, so is a female teacher perceived to be more “approachable” and “kind”, whereas a male teacher (father) is perceived as more distant or intimidating.

Having said that, all teachers, irrespective of gender, will be faced with the same quandary, therefore, taken in the cultural context here, what is “cheating” and what’s to be done about it? Educational institutions who are more and more perceiving students as “customers”, cannot then run the risk of alienating these customers by punishment policies, yet, there has to be a happy mix of strictness and sensitivity. I could be wrong, but, in my opinion, I think that Thai educators look on instances of “help” as being just that even though it may be happening during an exam/graded assignment, however, carrying scraps of written notes is seen as premeditation, which definitely proves bad intent or ethics, such as the student with her Mentos wrapper which was only going to help her and not a fellow classmate and thus, she had to repeat a semester as punishment, as this was an undeniable, clear case of cheating.

Cheating is just a way of achieving the short-term objective, i.e. passing the exam. One solution, especially in online learning, could be to do away with the emphasis on grades and, instead, hold sessions where students are assessed on their learning. These sessions should be recorded, so that evidence is available for the school/university authorities, parents as well as students themselves, as to why they haven’t been promoted, (should that be the case). If the focus shifts to knowledge rather than grades, it may motivate students to take a keener interest in their learning too. Furthermore, as Thai universities place a strong emphasis on Ethics as a subject, it may be worth the while for them to bring about a gradual change in the mindset – from cheating being viewed as “helping” and “forming relationships” with peers, it should be treated as unethical, which then becomes a matter worthy of censure.

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