The line between sharing info and cheating

By Daniel Pagan

Facebook users breathed a collective sigh of relief at universities across Canada after Toronto’s Ryerson University decided against expelling a first-year chemical engineering student over a Facebook study group.

Chris Avenir faced expulsion after being charged with academic misconduct due to his administrative role in the “Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry Solutions” study group last fall, where students could work together on online homework. It was announced Tue., Mar. 18 that Avenir wouldn’t be expelled, however the misconduct charge stuck.

U of C Students’ Union vice-president academic Brittany Sargent explained the SU was monitoring the case carefully and that the incident occurred because of poor disclosure at Ryerson.

“It is an example of a university poorly communicating the concept of collegial collaboration versus academic misconduct,” she said.

Sargent noted the SU is talking with the University of Calgary administration about updating their academic collaboration policies in light of Avenir’s case.

“The Integrity in Scholarly Activity and Student Misconduct policies are vague and have not been updated in light of new collaboration platforms like Facebook,” noted Sargent.

She explained that the policies need room for flexibility and noted that professors need to explain, through course outlines, what type of collaboration– such as study lounge groups or online study groups–would be appropriate for classes, so students have clear expectations.

“If the [Ryerson] professor had taken the time to explain what he thought was okay and write it down on the course outline, everyone might have been saved a lot of grief,” she said.

U of C faculty of communication and culture dean Kathleen Scherf agreed with Sargent on the importance of universities effectively communicating with students about online collaboration.

“The incident shows a lag between how people use communication technology and how established institutions accommodate that kind of use,” said Scherf.

Scherf doubts that the Ryerson incident would have any impact on how students use Facebook, explaining that it is up to universities to catch up with changing times.

“You don’t stop cultural movements, you adjust to them,” said Scherf.

Scherf pointed out students are encouraged to engage independently with others on academic work online beyond the classroom and it is difficult for universities to monitor students’ activities online.

“Instead, it would be probably better for the professor in question to create a course site so he could have been more aware of what was going on,” said Scherf. “This is what I mean about adjusting to mediating communication technologies.”

Scherf explained some institutions are starting to adjust to new communication technologies, such as the MLA Citation Style Handbook setting up new rules for using ideas from interactive websites in its new version.

“As well, we see more and more professors using social networking sites as value-added adjuncts to classroom-activities,” she said.

In a Mar. 19 Toronto Star article Ryerson Students’ Union Nora Loreto applauded Avenir’s pardon, saying it is good news for students concerned about their behaviour on Facebook.

“We’re very excited Chris would not be expelled and this is very good news for students who want to use Facebook to study,” said Loreto.

Avenir passed the class, but must attend an academic integrity workshop and will receive a disciplinary mark on his transcript, which can be appealed. He received a zero for the homework portion of the course, equaling 10 per cent of the total mark.

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