Student Dodges Expulsion Over Facebook Study Group
A Canadian student learned yesterday that he won’t be expelled after all. What egregious crime did he commit on campus? He coordinated an online study group using Facebook.
Chris Avenir, a freshman engineering student at Toronto’s Ryerson University, found himself in the headlines after university officials tried to give him the boot from campus because of his involvement in an educationally oriented Facebook group. The group, colorfully known as Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry Solutions, had actually been around prior to Avenir’s participation in it. It was created by university students who normally held their study group in a room on campus known as the dungeon and wanted to continue their conversations online. He and his classmates would use the group to share their lecture notes on assignments contributing to 10% of their grade.
Those lecture notes, though, included chemistry solutions they were tasked to work out for part of their grade. “If you request to join, please use the forms to discuss/post solutions to the chemistry assignments,” read a note on the group’s page. “Please input your solutions if they are not already posted.”
Some time after joining the group, Avenir became its administrator. As administrator, it was his job to process membership requests and post general announcements to the group, while other members could post their own content and interact as they pleased. His timing couldn’t have been worse. The course instructor got wind of the group and decided to take action. He gave Avenir a failing grade and brought him up on disciplinary charges. Along with facing a single count of academic misconduct for helping organize the group, he was charged with a whopping 146 other counts - one for every student who ever participated in it.
Though the university clearly thought this was just another case of academic misconduct, the severity of the charges against Avenir brought them unwanted headlines around the world. So it came as no surprise that the disciplinary committed decided yesterday that they wouldn’t expel Avenir after all. His failing grade for the class would stand, and a disciplinary letter would be placed in his academic file for two years, at which point he could appeal to have it removed. Meanwhile, Avenir will have to attend an academic integrity course before the end of the fall 2008 semester.
I would surmise that many school officials would just like to put the incident behind them, but it’s not as simple as that. Online study groups are a fact of life for many students, both in higher education and in secondary school. A quick search for study groups on Facebook alone brings up more than 500 results: chemistry groups, AP history groups, language groups, physics groups. The actual numbers are probably well beyond 500, but it’s hard to know because Facebook simply stops counting after you reach 500. The activities taking place on these groups run the gamut of possible student collaborations, from note-sharing and discussing to flat-out cheating. And it’s not just Facebook; study groups are popping up on do-it-yourself social networking sites like Ning.com and elsewhere, too.
Because no two groups are alike, it’s risky for school officials to treat all study groups as equally bad. If this were actually true, we wouldn’t see so many educators creating their own discussion spaces for their students to interact with each other. The problem many educators have with Facebook groups, though, is that they can be closed communities that they can’t monitor or join. Behind closed doors, who know what these kids are up to? Maybe they’re cheating. Maybe they’re selling test results to each other. Maybe.
Or maybe not.
In the case of Avenir, his instructor had made it clear that the assignments discussed in the Facebook group were intended as independent assignments, so collaboration and note-sharing wasn’t appropriate. So when he found out about the group, it’s reasonable that he wanted to take some type of disciplinary action. But it’s the severity of the action - proposed expulsion - went well beyond the severity of the academic crime committed, particularly since the assignments contributed to such a small fraction of the overall grade. Meanwhile, the 146 other students affiliated with the group didn’t face the same explusion threat, even though they too benefited from participating no more or less than Avenir did.
The lesson to be learned from this mess is that schools need to get a better grasp of how students create and use online study groups. They need to understand the spectrum of activities that can take place in them, from innocent - even productive - collaboration activities to organized cheating. Participating in an online study group isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s how the group is used that should taken into consideration. If a school’s acceptable use policy and academic rules in general don’t address a student’s rights and responsibilities when it comes to online study groups, they need to be re-examined.
Like it or not, your students are more comfortable organizing their own online discussions than most of us ever will, so you better lay out the rules as specifically and openly as possible. And when students break those rules, the punishment should match the severity of the academic crime committed. Otherwise, you too could find your school in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. -andy