Academic (dis)honesty

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

March 20, 2008 Ed Cartoon

The recent “cheating scandal” involving Ryerson University chemical engineering student Chris Avenir’s Facebook group is a difficult issue to gauge.

Students and education professionals have weighed in across the country as to whether Avenir’s invitation to group members to post their answers for an independent chemistry assignment constitutes cheating. The sheer energy of the debate highlights the complexity of the issue.

Avenir maintains he has done nothing different from what many students do in study groups and libraries. He is right " everywhere, students collaborate on assignments to complete their work. Students share answers and engaged students discuss the process behind them. Learning collaboratively rather than independently is a far better approach to education, as many pupils will tell you.

However, when students share answers without any effort to understand the process behind them, only to pass them off as their own on an assignment, this clearly violates the rules of academic integrity. Obviously, Avenir had no control over what others did with the posted answers.

What Avenir did differently is share common studying practice in a public and easily accessible forum and Ryerson is making an example of him to curb what, in its view, constitutes cheating.

Whether or not you agree with Ryerson or Avenir’s position, there are solutions that benefit either side of the issue. One is that university administration recognize the importance of collaborative learning in small, take-home assignments, and place the emphasis on exams or in-class quizzes, where students are forced to show they know the process behind solving a problem rather than merely basing it on others’ notes.

Science courses already base the majority of class marks on exams precisely because exams are the best way to prove a student’s independent abilities.

While Ryerson’s decision not to expel Avenir is a relief, his mark of zero on the assignment, disciplinary notice and academic integrity tutorial is a small, but fair, price to pay if Ryerson is to maintain its current policies on cheating.

There is a definite need for universities to clarify what constitutes cheating; because answer sharing is so common, Avenir likely had no idea his request for answers transgressed any regulations. If this case illustrates anything, it’s that sharing answers is a gray area that many students are not aware of, and updating policies regarding academic integrity online is required.

This does not absolve students from the fact they have cheated, however. Hopefully, this case will increase awareness about academic integrity.

Ultimately, until universities release clear policies on online forums, the onus is on students to ask a professor if they are in doubt about rules regarding academic integrity.

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