3.14.2008

It's not about technology, it's about academic integrity

By now, I think pretty much everyone has heard about it: the Ryerson student facing expulsion for his facebook exploits. Headlines like: Toronto student in Facebook fiasco, Online 'scapegoat' hailed, and Look, technology ... hide!.

Is it a huge PR nightmare for Ryerson? For sure, everyone's jumped on the facebook bandwagon and is accusing the university of being in the dark ages. Wake up and smell the virtual coffee. Is Chris Avenir unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle of something bigger than a facebook group? Yeah, probably. But the issue isn't the use of technology, it's the intent to circumvent academic integrity.

Universities have embraced technology, I'd say rather rapidly. My first email account was with the university, I'd never even had internet before. Today, most universities provide online registration, grades, course tools, testing, and yes, even discussion boards through tools like WebCT. I don't think universities are technophobes. So why the attack on this facebook "study" group?

"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'm not sure one can argue very effectively that this statement was not intended encourage the sharing of answers. Obviously Mr. Avenir was not the only one involved, but this doesn't really sound like students trying to use an online tool for open conceptual discussion. And what about the use of facebook, rather than one of those tools provided by the university? If everything was on the up-and-up why not use a discussion board for the course? I'm sure the professor would not have minded constructive discussion... in fact he/she would probably have been very pleased... unless there was cheating going on. In my experience (as a web-based TA) students turn to facebook and other places they think they are "safe" online when they know they are crossing that line. This is not about technology. The university provides that. This is about academic integrity.

Academic integrity. When I started university, not that long ago, I think I heard it mentioned once or twice. I knew there was a policy somewhere, and my handbook/agenda might have given the link for where to find it. I also knew cheating was wrong. Fast-forward 5 years, and TA's are practically reciting it to every class. Why? Because it's needed. Those same TA's are grading identical papers, and having conniptions about what to do. Is a first year lab worth reporting? What if it damages this person's academic career? University policy for cheating is strict, but rightly so, especially as it becomes increasingly prevalent. Somehow, despite how often academic integrity is hounded into students these days, they often don't even seem to realize what they are doing is wrong, and undermining their very own education. I don't know when or why this became such a problem, but it is.

So, is an online study group, where answers get shared, any different than the study group I worked with in the computer lab in 1st year to get my online physics assignments done? Yes and no. Obviously, we "shared" a little too much at times. There was a deadline, there was panic, Cindy-loo-who had the answer! But the distinction comes in the need for two-way interaction. In a face-to-face study group, people are more likely to take the time to explain how they got to an answer, and people are less likely to only take from the group. It starts to become obvious if Joe isn't pulling his weight. If Joe's lucky, someone will give him a hand if he's just having trouble. This kind of study group speaks to effective educational techniques like peer-teaching and probably offsets the degree of illegitimate "sharing". The worry is that this isn't necessarily the case for an online study group, especially one as large as Avenir's. People post answers, other people come and read those answers. There is less impetus for two-way sharing, and it is both more difficult and less likely that people will have full discussion to understand the background.

I'm all for using online tools for learning. I think it's great that these extra resources are out there, and online discussions allow students who might not otherwise be able to participate in a "real-world" study group (due to living situations, distance from the university, etc.) the chance to interact with their peers. But students have to realize that the the same rules apply in online world that apply in the real world. Facebook, or any other site is not a virtual shelter. (In fact, it leaves a digital trail.)

I don't know that it's entirely fair to Chris Avenir for the University to expel him, and not the other participants in the group, but I do think they have every right to enforce academic policy in any forum that students attempt to use to circumvent it.

5 comments:

lost clown said...

I'm feeling down on students because I TA'd the physics 101 labs this quarter and apparently my asking the students to think for themselves angered them so much they complained to the prof about it.

"I wrote exactly what she said and she marked me down." Because I teach by questioning, I'll never give you the answers outright, ever. You're in college, you're supposed to think. UGH.

lost clown said...

I just kind of went out on a tangent rant there didn't I?

physics*chick said...

Indeed... sometimes a TA just needs a place to vent!

I once heard the phrase "I'm going to get my daddy to get you fired" emerge from the mouth of a first year student clearly used to success after giving her a mark of ~7/10 (gasp!). I chose to ignore the part about how she wrote the EXACT same thing as her friend in another lab section and SHE got 10/10... I simply told her maybe her friend's TA didn't read as carefully because her answer was wrong. That was the point she was out of arguments and pulled the "daddy" card. Absurd, no? I mean, what is with "kids" these days!? ;)

physics*chick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lost clown said...

Sad thing is most these students weren't first years. Blah. My partner pointed out that most people weren't there to learn they were there to get a degree so that they could get paid more. Sadly, from what I've seen, he's right. I picked math/physics because it challenges me, if I wanted to not think I would have kept with my concentration. I can knock out a 10 page research paper in no time. ;)

Thanks for letting me rant.