Online Study Group Creator Not Expelled; But Still Punished

from the lesson-learned:-don't-study-with-others! dept

A couple weeks ago, we wrote about a student at Ryerson University in Canada, who was being threatened with expulsion for setting up an online study group via Facebook for his chemistry class. If he’d done the same thing with a group in the library, it would have been fine. But, somehow, in setting it up on Facebook, he got in trouble. After plenty of news attention over this, the school has decided not to expel him, but will still give him a zero on the assignment in question and will place a “disciplinary note” in his file. While it’s good he wasn’t expelled, it’s difficult to see how the school can justify this type of punishment either. Here’s a student trying to help both himself and the rest of the class better learn the subject matter, and he’s punished for it? That doesn’t seem right.

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Comments on “Online Study Group Creator Not Expelled; But Still Punished”

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34 Comments
Teaching Rogue (profile) says:

Justification?

That’s easy. He made the teachers in the department look bad. Not only look bad, but appear to be completely inept when it comes to using the internet. From the teaching side of “Higher Education,” I can tell you this: It’s a cutthroat business. Publish or perish. Reputation is extremely important, and there’s a few Chem professors at Ryerson with egg on their faces. If/when those professors leave Ryerson, this incident will be found by prospective hirers.

People tend to forget that the primary concern of Universities is to make money. The most common misconception is that Educating People is their primary concern, when it isn’t. It’s what they sell, along with sports. And, with some Universities, the sports come before the educating. I’ve worked at a University where they couldn’t afford to renovate a science building, but could easily afford to pump millions into a new indoor practice center for the football team. Yes, money does come from several pockets and can’t always go where it’s most needed. However, this is actually a symptom of the overall problem and most people are so accustomed to the idea that they just shrug and go on. This is why tuition costs keep increasing at a farcical rate.

Universities have learned to charge their customers as much as they possibly can pay. It’s all about the money.

Craig (user link) says:

Re: Justification?

Regarding the situation of “funds coming from different pockets being indicative of the overall problem,” I have to educate you here a bit. While I agree with you that non-educational activities have taken on too much priority in US universities, the reason these institutions have $250 million to spend on a new stadium but can’t find money to renovate a classroom is due to all the ALUMNI who give money for athletics only. If every donor said “I don’t care how you use this donation,” things would be better, but that’s not the case. Instead, you have many donors specifying “this is for athletics.” Once that stipulation is placed on the donation, it cannot legally be diverted to something else, no matter how much more important or needed it may be.

So, if you want to blame someone, make sure you include college alumni — they’re as much a part of the problem as administrations…perhaps more so.

BTR1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Justification?

> the reason these institutions have $250 million
> to spend on a new stadium but can’t find money
> to renovate a classroom is due to all the ALUMNI
> who give money for athletics only. If every donor
> said “I don’t care how you use this donation,”
> things would be better

Not the case at all. When I was in law school at the University of Houston, a wealthy alumnus died and her will left $50 million to the university with no stipulation that it be used for athletics. Yet what did the university do? Immediately allocated $40 million of it to the athletic department, leaving every other department in the college to fight over the remaining $10 million– and this at a time when the library couldn’t even be used when it rained because the roof leaked so badly.

Craig (user link) says:

Wow...why all the animosity?

Apparently, some of you still have some latent anger over a bad college experience. Otherwise, I can’t see the rationale for your venom towards university professors when there are so many other groups out there more deserving. But that’s a different debate.

The complete facts of this case aren’t known here, but if the student was using the Facebook group for collaborating on assignments that were supposed to be done individually (as many homework assignments are), then why is the university wrong to punish him? I, and every professor I know, encourage students to collaborate by whatever means they find most helpful on open assignments and non-graded homework. But when it comes to individual assignments, there is not supposed to be any working together. So, in that instance, a group like this would be very wrong, indeed. And I can only imagine how easy it was for a group formed under the most innocent of intentions to start sharing solutions inappropriately (e.g., for take-home quizzes).

You might argue the pedagogical wisdom in individual assignments. That’s fine…it’s an opinion. As a professor myself, I can tell you, though, that there is a significant percentage of students who will NEVER learn something unless forced to work through it by themselves. That is one of the reasons why some assignments are to be done individually.

So, lest someone knows *ALL* the facts here, let’s put down the nooses and torches and resume some civil discourse. Thanks.

SomeGuy says:

Re: Wow...why all the animosity?

As noted by Mike, though, if this had been a study group in a Library, no one would have said anything. But they could still have been sharing answers to take-home quizes. So what’s the difference? If you want to argue that it would be hard to catch a library-based study group cheating (and so it’s better to ignore the problem?), why not ban *all* study groups? They MIGHT be cheating.

As it stands, I haven’t seen any proof that they found evidence of sharing answers in an inappropriate way and, without evidence, I hold that no crime was committed. If you can’t SHOW he cheated, how can you punnish him for it?

What’s more, why is this ONE GUY getting punished if the argument is that the group did (or could have) cheated? Because he’s the ring-leader? Then your argument fails, because you aren’t punishing for cheating, your punishing for some other reason. At least be consistent and give all the members zeroes. They are all equally as likely to have cheated.

All of that aside, I might question you, as a professor, as to why these assignments must need be done individually. A take home test I could understand, but if your concern is that your students are cheating then why are you giving them a take-home exam? Some kind of a project could be argued as well, I suppose, but as has been noted (and assuming that education is supposed to prepare one for or bestow practical skills for real-life afterwards) most project-type work in the real world is group-based and discouraging those kinds of skills is counter-productive. This would leave daily (or weekly, depending on the class) homework, and my understanding is that such assignments are meant as a learning aide to reinforce (or set a basis for) the lessons given in class. As such, *grading* homework (any more than “done” or “not done”) seems foolish, at best a way of padding grades against “bad test days” and at worse a way to allow wiggle-room for the professor to have personal discression in the final grades of students he may or may not like. If homework is meant to help students understand, absorb, and reinforce the lessons, letting them work together on it just makes sense — if nothing else, they’ll be doing your job by helping students who don’t “get it” understand.

evo9 says:

Re: Re: Wow...why all the animosity?

as others have mentioned, there is not a way to force students to do assignments individually,..unless they are done in class or if study groups and collaboration is banned. Even then, you will not be able to stop 2 students from getting together off-campus and working on the assignment, together.

If you want to gauge individual knowledge, you require that students take a in class exam, or write a paper in one week so they dont have time to collaborate, but even then some rich kid whose parents a paying for a full time “assistant” will get an A

Craig (user link) says:

Re: Re: Wow...why all the animosity?

Why individual assignments? If you’d read my previous post carefully (which you didn’t, suggesting you might still be a student yourself), I gave at least one well-founded reason: some people require doing something on their own to learn how to do it. Another reason is for grading purposes; I have no shortage of students who regularly ask me for graded homework assignments (their justification, as incredible as it may seem, is that they won’t learn it any other way). A third reason for individual assignments is when you need to issue truly individualized grades. Group projects are fine for many things — I use them extensively in my classes — but not for everything. Different people have different learning styles, and different materials sometimes need to be taught using different methods, so there /are/ situations where individualized effort is the most appropriate approach.

Regardless, questioning the validity of a class of assignments when the real debate is about the actions of the student risks fallacious discourse, and that’s not helpful. If the assignment was to be done on one’s own — a fact that neither of us know for certain, apparently — then engaging a study group in any form is wrong. Just because the college doesn’t bother to pursue library groups of a few people doesn’t make a 150-person Facebook group any less inappropriate (that’s the second fallacy you’ve presented…you might want to stop that…it destroys your legitimacy in a debate). If the student had been sharing solutions via photocopy with 150 of his dorm-mates, this wouldn’t have made headlines; the only reason we heard about it is because the tradmed loves to associate new media with scandal. Don’t be suckered in.

Bob says:

Re: Wow...why all the animosity?

The point is not whether it was individual or a group assignment. The point is, if he put up a flyer that said, study group for class ‘A’ meeting at 8:00 PM on Thursdays no problem. You are not going to expel him. In college we met all the time to go over notes, talk over assignments….. This kid did the same thing, but used a social networking site. The school ASSUMED it was cheating, but if that is cheating so are study groups and leave your class and look around your school and you will find about 100 of them.

The school flew off the handle, and now it is paying the consequences.

Liquid says:

Re: Wow...why all the animosity?

Yeah… That’s not how the real world works… If someone has a question to ask they ask it, and that’s usually to other people that they go for guidance… Even if they are in a position where they are working all by them selves they are still going to ask someone questions about what ever they are doing…

All through out my working career, and educational career even when working alone on something I was still able to ask others questions in regards to what I was working on… So to say this:

“I, and every professor I know, encourage students to collaborate by whatever means they find most helpful on open assignments and non-graded homework. But when it comes to individual assignments, there is not supposed to be any working together. So, in that instance, a group like this would be very wrong, indeed. And I can only imagine how easy it was for a group formed under the most innocent of intentions to start sharing solutions inappropriately (e.g., for take-home quizzes).”

is very contradicting to your point, and to the way real life works… That word supposed really doesn’t help the fact… If students aren’t allowed to work at all with each other for individual assignments you would have stated that it is 110% not allowed, and to do so other wise would result in serious punishment… Failing grades for assignments that might have been collaborated with fellow classmates, etc…

Craig (user link) says:

Re: Re: Wow...why all the animosity?

Thanks for the lecture on how the “real world” works.

IMO, the only reason there’s a need for individual work is because we assign individual grades. If I could assign only group grades, that’d be great, but unfortunately, that’s not how the real world works. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Besides, most students prefer individual assignments because they then don’t have to coordinate schedules with other students on a project.

It would be incredibly easy for me to give an assignment and say “use whatever resources you like,” but is that realistic when my job is assess how much each individual student has learned during the course? No, of course not.

moore850 (profile) says:

Explanation of what he did wrong

The part everyone is ignoring here is how this was cheating. A regular study group is not cheating wholesale because while you could just copy down the answers, in a sense you are exposed to the process of learning with the other students in a real-time environment.

Posting that content online creates direct access for everyone to just the answers. That’s the same thing as taking the answers from a study session and posting them outside the classroom before the assignment is due — which would clearly be cheating. I hope it finally makes sense to everyone why this was a punishable offense.

SomeGuy says:

Re: Explanation of what he did wrong

That’s the same thing as taking the answers from a study session and posting them outside the classroom before the assignment is due

I don’t see how that’s “clearly cheating.” Anyone who was there got the answer, regardless of if they contributed or not, and ragardless of if they paid attention to anything other and the answers. Other students may not have been able to attend for a number of reasons (part-time jobs come to mind most, as students do have to pay for these classes), not just laziness. I knew some professors who would say “don’t share this outside the study group,” as a way of incentivising people to come to them, but thought it was ill-reasoned then and I think it is ill-reasoned now.

Further, all of THAT applies to a regular study group, too, where one “braniac” could just *do* the work for the other dozen students and give them direct access to the answers. What then?

Finally, if it IS a punishable offense, punish ALL the offenders. Unless I’m misreading this, the creator of the group is getting a zero, and just him. Where’s the sense in that, if this is “obviously” cheating?

matt says:

Re: Re: black sheep

all this is, is turning the student into a big black sheep. I hope whoever the professor is that chose to be offended by an online study group gets a kick in the nuts from the employment department when his review comes around. This is way over the top for someone to do, and as the poster I replied to said, study groups are no different online or not. You’re okay with them or not. And since no school bans study groups, that’s it. Nothing else to be said.

The person who said they’re outside the classroom (answers)…that doesn’t even relate to this.

The infamous Joe says:

Re: Re: Re: black sheep

..and by “black sheep”, you mean the online community is rallying to his cause?

FTA:

The case has created a groundswell of online support for the 18-year-old, including an online petition, a Facebook support group and a website, chrisdidntcheat.com, that among other things is selling T-shirts, hats and buttons with the slogan.

Maybe he’ll write a book. ๐Ÿ˜›

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Explanation of what he did wrong

Posting that content online creates direct access for everyone to just the answers. That’s the same thing as taking the answers from a study session and posting them outside the classroom before the assignment is due — which would clearly be cheating. I hope it finally makes sense to everyone why this was a punishable offense.

It seems they weren’t just copying answers from each other.
Points from the original story:
1. Each student in the course received slightly different questions to prevent cheating.
2. No one posted full final solutions. It was more the usual back and forth that you get in study groups.

The infamous Joe says:

Ah, old people strike again...

From the article, now two links deep:

The computer engineering student has been charged with one count of academic misconduct for helping run the group … and another 146 counts, one for each classmate who used the site.

Not only did *he* “cheat”, he forced all 146 of his peers to sign up and “cheat” too.

Ryerson’s academic misconduct policy, which is being updated, defines it as “any deliberate activity to gain academic advantage, including actions that have a negative effect on the integrity of the learning environment.”

One might argue that getting a tutor, or going to the professor and asking questions after class would be gaining “academic advantage”.

From Craig:

As a professor myself, I can tell you, though, that there is a significant percentage of students who will NEVER learn something unless forced to work through it by themselves.

…and if one of these students got a tutor to help them learn the subject, they, too, will be cheating? Why is asking for help cheating? As far as I can learn from the article, they didn’t just outright post the answers, in fact they all had different questions to discourage cheating, so instead they posted “I’m stuck, what should I do next?” questions.

I’m not sure I get what the fuss is about, except some of the older generations (The ones that walked butt naked in the snow uphill both ways to school, I’m sure) instantly see anything involving technology as “cheating”– except for those rare cases where they see it as “magic” instead. ๐Ÿ˜› (How *do* they get those tiny people in that box??!)

But, hell, his lawyer will get him to appeal this, and he’s already saying that the stress of this is affecting his grades– it’s only a short jump to “emotional distress”. ๐Ÿ™‚

Craig (user link) says:

Re: Ah, old people strike again...

You don’t see batting coaches standing beside the batter’s box and helping the player with his form after every pitch, do you?

There’s a difference between getting a tutor to help you learn something and getting someone to help you complete a graded assignment. If that’s not clear and easy to agree on, there’s not much point in debating this further.

Josh says:

Simple Explanation

The professor had stipulated that the work be done independently. It was not. They were sharing notes and answers. Pretty clear violation to me.

If you want to believe this, than any students meeting up in residence rooms, cafes, etc. to share notes should be punished and expelled too, which is ridiculous. In undergrad, my profs had a similiar “must work independently” requirement too. But any prof who thinks that students aren’t going to get together to study (and not cheat…just good clean cooperation) clearly is daft and naive. People in school work all the time on things in groups.

Here, if you want to believe the student here “cheated”, then what the school did trying to expel him is pretty extreme. A failing grade on the assignment or in the class *might* have been justified. To get expelled normally though, you usually have to fail most of your classes and/or do something really henious, like assaulting someone or sleeping with a teacher. This guy just had to start a Facebook page. But, I think there’s a reason the admin was so harsh here, and it goes back to Mike’s “infinite goods” economics. Anything posted on this Facebook page is there for everyone to see, and becomes infinitely available. So if someone posted something like a former test, test answers, repotext notes, etc., that’s now there forever, which is bad news for professors of the course. Why? Because professors now can’t assign those questions, because a simple Google or Facebook search will find the answers. Students won’t buy certain textbooks since they have digital copies around. Basically, this throws off how the profs/admin can run the course, and if this became more common, this could cause some issues for particular people. Whether this is good or bad I can’t say, but it definitely makes some university people mad. That’s why I think this student was made an example.

Online Studen says:

Cheaters!

This certainly leaves me with a hell of a question to pose. What about schools which are 100% online? All cheaters! no, because collaberation is the basis for learning in an online evironment. Online students show understanding not by answering a,b,a,c on a test but need to explain in their own words why/how something is and how it applies etc.

Dave (user link) says:

Safe Harbor?

Wouldn’t he be eligible for the Safe Harbor sort of thing, where just because he set up the group doesn’t make him responsible for how people use it? I mean, I could set up a group for a perfectly good purpose that people could use for un-intended reasons. He was taking existing technology and leveraging it to help others in his class and if people decide to use it in a nefarious way that’s not his fault. Unless it comes out that he was promoting the group in that manner, he’s just offering a service like anyone else.

Daz says:

Ridiculous

We used to use Yahoo Groups when I was at Uni. Whats the difference between any online group and any face to face group, or video conference or any other way of getting together to go through an assignment, and cheating? If thats cheating I think a large majority of people with degrees would never have gotten them.
F*cktards

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