Chris Avenir is a freshman at Ryerson University (Toronto, Canada), studying computer engineering. He was enrolled in a chemistry class last fall, in which the professor assigned problem sets (online? Through Blackboard or its equivalent?) which students were required to complete individually.
Avenir became part of an on-line study group through Facebook, eventually becoming the moderator.
As this Ryerson graduate said, it isn't unusual for college students to form study groups:
I recall studying, night after night, with three students. We teamed up to solve the homework problems. Every Ryerson engineering student was part of a similar group. No one could have solved the problems by themselves.
It makes sense. A student has so much work in the engineering program that teamwork is a necessity.
As Avenir described the kind of interaction that went on in the group, it certainly sounded like any face-to-face study group:
"So we each would be given chemistry questions and if we were having trouble, we'd post the question and say: `Does anyone get how to do this one? I didn't get it right and I don't know what I'm doing wrong.' Exactly what we would say to each other if we were sitting in the Dungeon" [a study area used by engineering student] said Avenir yesterday.
However, the professor teaching the chemistry course ran across the study group on Facebook and reacted quite strongly:
[Avenir] had earned a B in the class, but after the professor discovered the Facebook group over the holidays, the mark was changed to an F. The professor reported the incident to the school's student conduct officer and recommended expulsion.
Avenir was charged with one count of academic misconduct and 146 counts of enabling academic misconduct -- one for each of the students belonging to the Facebook group. Not one other member of the Facebook group was charged.
On March 11, Avenir's case was heard before a faculty body.
News reports indicate that the professor "stipulated the online homework questions were to be done independently". However, it is not clear how rigorous the requirement was. Could a student be tutored? Doesn't the tutor reteach material the student is confused about? If the tutor spots a math error in the student's solution to a chemistry problem -- is it "cheating" for the tutor to point out the student's error?
Was Avenir cheating, or just using a study group? Were other members of the group cheating? Why was Avenir the only one punished?
If educators are marketing their Universities by giving away iphones and luring kids with techno gizmos and media incentives for school use, they can’t turn around and accuse the kids of using the media to pool resources and data share, and then call it ‘cheating’ to send lightening thunderbolts of authority and paranoia their way.
There’s no way of telling from the news reports if this was simply a wired version of a study hall or a savvy media play to game the system…But from the reports that ARE documented in the press, it sure seems like Chris and ALL the students were simply transferring knowledge to one another in 21st century study group style.
Isn’t sharing what you know and actively seeking solutions among classmates a successful way to educate students? At Shaping Youth, we’ve found tutorial/mentoring peer to peer is one of the best ways to cement knowledge transfer!
Another Canadian student (a graduate student in physics), had a good point about the difference between face-to-face study groups and on-line ones such as Avenir's:
So, is an online study group, where answers get shared, any different than the study group I worked with in the computer lab in 1st year to get my online physics assignments done? Yes and no. Obviously, we "shared" a little too much at times. There was a deadline, there was panic, Cindy-loo-who had the answer! But the distinction comes in the need for two-way interaction. In a face-to-face study group, people are more likely to take the time to explain how they got to an answer, and people are less likely to only take from the group. It starts to become obvious if Joe isn't pulling his weight. If Joe's lucky, someone will give him a hand if he's just having trouble. This kind of study group speaks to effective educational techniques like peer-teaching and probably offsets the degree of illegitimate "sharing". The worry is that this isn't necessarily the case for an online study group, especially one as large as Avenir's. People post answers, other people come and read those answers. There is less impetus for two-way sharing, and it is both more difficult and less likely that people will have full discussion to understand the background.
Another Canadian student wrote:
Copying other people's answers without trying to understand the information is definitely cheating. But sharing ideas ... that's a grey area. Yet, how different is online study groups from students studying together at the library?
Bora Zivkovic, who blogs as Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock, thought that the professor's reaction was
medieval antediluvian. Science is done through collaboration, not individuals, therefore the professor's requirement that the problem sets be done "without outside help" was bad pedagogy.
In his post, he asked readers to perform a thought experiment (as he stated more clearly in his second post on the subject):
So, let me restate, very clearly, what the thought experiment was and lets go from there:
"How would the world be affected if all the grades in all the classes (K-PhD) in all the educational institutions in the world were assigned to groups instead of individuals?"
I have not yet figured out why I have such a knee-jerk, negative reaction to Bora's proposal. All classes and all grades?
But I agree with what a commenter, Opisthokont, said:
Individual and group learning each have their place. I say this as a grad student myself: I am a member of a research team, but I also bring (or at least like to think that I bring) unique capabilities and knowledge to that team, some at least of which I learned through the sort of individual hurdle-jumping that is emphasised in traditional classwork. I would question the utility of grades that were given to the whole class equally. It could result in a blot on the record of outstanding students, unless the whole thing was scaled to the best students' performance, in which case one might as well not mark anything. Anyway, like it or not, there are situations in which one has no avenues for collaboration, and one must know things oneself -- or know how to find things out by oneself. Individual learning is important, any way one looks at it.
Networking, however, is a good thing, and setting up a Facebook group to work on problems together cannot but help in the long run. I have always found that I retain things better if I have to explain them to others. Telling students not to have some sort of study group to work on problem sets is stupid.
This isn't the first Facebook-collaboration-is-cheating case. There was an incident at Cardiff University (Wales), in which twenty biosciences students were sharing answers (and insulting their professor). The university required them to cease and desist.
The Toronto Star March 6, 2008
The Toronto Star March 9, 2008
Globe and Mail, March 14, 2008