Ryerson & Facebook

A student at Ryerson University is facing academic sanctions for his role in administering an online study group. To join the group, users were invited to post the answers to assigned questions – questions they were explicitly told to do on their own. From the Globe and Mail:

“Ryerson’s administration appears to have focused on Mr. Avenir’s main-page posting, which read: “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.””

I’d argue that there’s a difference between comparing the process by which answers are arrived at (as a legitimate study group might do), and putting the answers online for everyone to see.  It’s interesting to observe how this is being covered in the media – many reporters put a spin on it saying in effect that the prof in question is old fashioned to be upset by this:

“Some have framed the debate as an issue of universities becoming uncomfortable as Internet innovation brings existing practices into new, more public arenas. But Ryerson spokesman and professor James Norrie said the online forum is irrelevant to the central question of whether misconduct occurred, and rejected the notion that new technology brings different standards.

“Ryerson University is not attempting to prevent the use of Facebook for appropriate learning,” he said. “The question is, do we want to hold people accountable for their online behaviour?””

Bravo Prof. Norrie: new technologies do not change the standards of behaviour. If you don’t do your own work, it’s cheating, pure and simple, whether it’s done on-line or in the pub. If you did it in the pub though, you’d probably get away with it; putting it on facebook is plain silly: it’s there for everyone – including the prof – to see.  When I taught media studies at the high school level, many students were shocked and astonished to know that Myspace, facebook, etc were not private. Indeed, if you put anything on the internet, (I taught them), you should expect eventually for it to be treated as public whether you intended it to be or not. It strikes me that in the Ryerson case, the student(s) acted as if the group were private, while the prof treated it as public.   Nevertheless,  whether the students believed it to be private or not, the fact remains that they were instructed to do the work on their own.

(I write this as someone who has to deal with cut-n-paste’d wikipedia articles masquerading as essays every bloody term… Frankly, if I could, I wouldn’t assign essays any more. (The literacy skills of many of my students just make me cringe, too.) What I’d love to do is assign this sort of thing: build and script a scenario for a game highlighting your understanding of the historical/social forces at play…  not likely to happen, I know, I know….)