A first-year engineering student accused of cheating through an online study group emerged from an expulsion hearing Tuesday optimistic he would be allowed to stay in school in a case that raises new questions about cyberspace and academic honesty.Supporters of Chris Avenir, 18, argue the Facebook study group he ran was no different from any kind of homework help or tutoring circle, but Ryerson University officials accused him of going too far with an exhortation to “input solutions” to assignment problems.
“I feel pretty confident and optimistic about the appeal meeting we just had,” Avenir said moments after the closed-door, 90-minute hearing ended.
“I don’t have any regrets about what happened inside.”
The faculty appeal committee that heard the case Tuesday was expected to decide on a punishment – which could be as harsh as expulsion – within five business days.
Last term, Avenir became administrator of the online group Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry Solutions, which he initially joined to get help with homework. In all, 147 classmates used the group to swap tips on assignments that counted for 10 per cent of their mark.
What appears to have snared Avenir was the group’s main page, 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.”
A professor, who had stipulated assignments be done independently, discovered the group, gave the B student an F, then charged him with academic misconduct.
The charge ignited a fierce debate that echoed around the wired world about whether the university, which prides itself on cutting-edge, interactive learning, was in fact acting like a Luddite or whether dishonesty was hiding out on the electronic frontier.
Students are “just floored,” said Nora Loreto, president of the Ryerson Students Union.
Avenir’s case sparked a host of support groups – among them www.chrisdidntcheat.com, with offers of “premium” T-shirts and hats for US$19.99 bearing “Chris Didn’t Cheat” as a slogan and proceeds ostensibly going to defray his legal fees.
Bloggers were mostly scathing of Ryerson’s actions.
“Is it our fault that schools are so antiquated they don’t understand that Facebook is like a virtual study hall or dorm room or any other place we would all normally study?” Davin Carey, a student at San Diego State, wrote in one post.
In another post on the Facebook group “Support Chris Avenir,” Ryerson student Matt Boyle called the school’s action an “outrage.”
“How is this any different from a study group in the library or something?” Boyle said. “I don’t see the school policing those.”
Dissenters, although fewer and further between, suggested that posting online answers did in fact constitute cheating, and that arguing that in-person cheating also occurs is no excuse.
What Facebook has changed, said Fred Stutzman, a doctorate student of social networks at the University of North Carolina, is the open record it leaves, making it easier to gather evidence of academic dishonesty.
“Cheating is cheating and collaboration is collaboration. Because there’s a virtual environment, that doesn’t change the definition of any of these constructs that we’ve written into law or society,” Stutzman said from Chapel Hill, N.C.
“The problem here is that this is going to have a serious chilling effect on these very interesting opportunities for learning and collaboration that the virtual environment affords.”
Avenir’s lawyer John Adair, who was not allowed to speak for his client at the hearing, said if the case isn’t dropped, he will “expose the glaring lack of evidence” behind the allegations.
“The problem here is Facebook is a new realm, and it’s one that the university is seeking to seize without any regard for the specific circumstances,” Adair said.
Ryerson officials have said they fully endorse the online world – as long as it is used appropriately.
-with a report from CP
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