Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ryerson University Holds Facebook "Cheating" Hearing

In our post last Saturday, Facebook "Study Group" Leads to Ryerson "Cheating" Allegations, we reported on the case of Chris Avenir.

Mr. Avenir is an 18 year-old student at Toronto's Ryerson University who faces possible expulsion over charges of cheating that arose from his role as administrator of a chemistry "study group" on Facebook.

Yesterday, an academic misconduct hearing into the matter was conducted at Ryerson.

According to news reports, Mr. Avenir and his lawyer, John Adair, were in attendance at a ninety minute session before the University's Engineering Faculty Appeals Committee, in which he maintained his position that he, and the online study group, had done nothing wrong.

At issue is a request on the study group's page asking students to post their solutions to assigned chemistry problems. The group's main page stated, "If you request to join, please use the forms to discuss/post solutions to the chemistry assignments. Please input your solutions if they are not already posted.”

An instructor who had requested that students work independently filed the complaint, suspecting that students were indeed sharing their assignment solutions online.

As CityNews reports, many of Mr. Avenir's fellow students appear to be in his corner:

... Avenir's case is being watched extremely closely by other students and school administrators, as it promises to be precedent-setting. Those supporting the Ryerson student agree that talking about schoolwork on Facebook is no different from study groups that work on homework or cram for tests together outside class.

"It's the exact same thing. The only difference is it's online. You know, there isn't a massive bust-up of study groups in our library or anything like that," noted Ryerson's Student Union President Nora Loreto. "Actually in engineering, most engineering students will say that they really got through by being able to actually have help from their classmates, because it's a very collaborative program."

Avenir was quick to second those sentiments. "The only real reason that I think it's getting the attention that it is getting is because it is on Facebook," he insists. "It's a pretty new technology and that the school hasn't really adopted yet."

Other students were quick to support their peer.

"To be honest I'm kind of disappointed, "said Ryerson student Lyndsay Morrison. "Personally I don't see how it's any different from sitting around the library and having a discussion."

According to the Ryerson campus newspaper, The Eyeopener, however, some students disagree:

The president of the engineers' student group maintains Avenir committed academic misconduct for administrating a Facebook group in which students exchanged notes and answers.

"It seems unfair to everyone who would have worked on that assignment on their own," said Griffith d'Souza, president of the Ryerson Engineering Students' Society.

Commenting in the Toronto Star, Fred Stutzman, a "doctoral student of social networks," suggested the University's actions could have a chilling effect:

What Facebook has changed, said Fred Stutzman, a doctorate student of social networks at the University of North Carolina, is the open record it leaves, making it easier to gather evidence of academic dishonesty. “

Cheating is cheating and collaboration is collaboration. Because there’s a virtual environment, that doesn’t change the definition of any of these constructs that we’ve written into law or society,” Stutzman said from Chapel Hill, N.C.

“The problem here is that this is going to have a serious chilling effect on these very interesting opportunities for learning and collaboration that the virtual environment affords.”

A decision is required within five days. Mr. Avenir may appeal to the University's Senate if the outcome is unfavourable to him.

It is a fascinating debate. Let us hope that the answers ultimately achieved do not come at the expense of Mr. Avenir's academic career and future.

Mr. Avenir is right. His Facebook group's conduct was not demonstrably different in substance from the typical, accepted collaborations that have occurred in libraries and personal study groups since universities were invented.

Such collaborations now, quite naturally, also take place online. Because they can.

The "digital study hall" offers genuine benefit to all students; beyond that, it is likely to the specific advantage of students with certain disabilities and to those who are simply uncomfortable in group study environments.

The world changes.

Universities are supposed to be ahead of the curve.

Apparently, Ryerson is not.

It is no surprise that Mr. Avenir is shocked by these charges, and feels they came from left field.

They did.

Neither he, nor any of the other 146 students in the online chemisty study group have committed any offence other than modernity. They have no moral turpitude whatsoever.

Should Ryerson, in the future, wish to draft and adopt a specific policy in writing as to the do's and don'ts of online study collaboration, it of course may do so.

Absent such a policy, students should not be left guessing.

And they should not be singled out for breaking unwritten rules that have not previously been stated.

As the website says, Chris didn't cheat.


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