Editorial – Cyber Study?Or Cyber Cheat?

Study group or organized cheating forum? That’s the question facing the engineering faculty appeals committee at Ryerson University after a student there was charged with academic misconduct for running an online study group.

As the Toronto Star reported, the first-year student administered a Facebook group that was ostensibly a place where chemistry students ?swapped tips on homework questions that counted for 10 per cent of their mark.? (Although 146 fellow students were participating, only the student acting as administrator was charged with misconduct; one count each for himself and every other student.

Admittedly, Ryerson’s academic policy is vague, defining misconduct as ?any deliberate activity to gain academic advantage, including actions that have a negative effect on the integrity of the learning environment.? (The policy is being updated.)

As Kim Neale, the student union’s advocacy co-ordinator, said, ?. . . It’s no different than any study group working together on homework in a library.?

In one way, she has a point. After all, the phrase ?deliberate attempt to gain academic advantage? covers a lot of territory. Does sitting down with a tutor in an attempt to raise your grades count as an academic advantage? What about hanging out in the library and prepping for an exam with a classmate? Or how about using a Moodle forum to exchange ideas on how to tackle an assignment?

But in this case, it is different?and not because of the technology being used. The debate around online study groups simply obscures the central fact: there’s a clear line between academic discussion and cheating, and That’s where this particular student seems to have gone wrong. It’s one thing to talk about methods?but quite another to ask for specific answers, especially when they’re part of your grade. It doesn’t matter if the request comes in an online format or is stapled to a hallway bulletin board.

And according to the Star article, Neale admits the group’s Facebook invitation offered more than just a place to swap tips: it was a call to provide answers to specific questions that formed part of the students? grades.

The invitation 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.? This was in spite of the fact that the professor had clearly stated the homework questions should be done independently.

Whether students posted the answers or not (and Neale claims no one actually did), the student charged with misconduct became responsible for the open call to cheating when he took over administration of the site (a responsibility the other students should share if they joined after that invitation was posted). It’s hard to claim any uncertainty over the phrase ?post solutions to the chemistry assignments.?

Cheating? Yes. Should it be taken seriously by all students? Definitely, because new technologies don’t alter the fundamental principles behind intellectual integrity. And if open requests for assignment answers become acceptable?in any forum?it undermines the value of the education we all work so hard for.