Saturday, March 08, 2008

Is it cheating to discuss an assignment in a Facebook study group?

 
A student at Ryerson University in Toronto faces expulsion from the university for setting up a Facebook study group that discussed chemistry assignments.

This is a complicated issue that's made the newspapers here in Toronto. One of the undergraduate bloggers at the University of Toronto explains the situation and offers an opinion. Check out Expelled for cheating on Facebook?.

Unethical conduct in general, and cheating in particular, has become a major problem at universities around the world. Part of the problem is due to the availability of resources and contacts on the internet. This opens up new possibilities for circumventing the intent of assignments and essays—possibilities that weren't available a decade ago. Nobody knows how to deal with the new realities.

In this particular case, the Professor explicitly required that students complete the assignment individually without help from anyone else. That's a very reasonable requirement, in my opinion, and there probably were times the past when almost all students were honorable enough to obey this rule. Today, that sense of "honor" seems horribly old-fashioned. To most students it will not seem like cheating if they ask their friends for help with the assignments and share information. That's what happened on the Facebook study group.

Ironically, the public nature of Facebook is what brings the chemistry students together in the first place but it is also what revealed that they are violating the rules.


[Photo Credit: The Toronto Star: Student faces Facebook consequences]

20 comments:

  1. I think this is a case of Utopian thinking by the professor. Asking any student in this day and age to complete something delivered online as an individual is simply poor pedagogy.

    The only way to enforce this kind of requirement is to use a closed computer lab, with all students present and all being monitored. Consider - you give a pen-and-paper set of homework questions, and tell the students to turn it in for grading the next day. Does anyone really think the students won't talk to each other about it?

    What we have here is more a case of poor planning by the professor - it was a situation that was bound to fail. Are they also going to go after all the students who talked about the assignment over lunch, or using instant messenger software, or with their roommates taking the same course?

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  2. Let's see. When I was an undergrad and the professor indicated that we couldn't work together on homework, we didn't. We'd talk about it after turning it in, but not before. In other classes where there wasn't an explicit ban, we'd work together. Of course that work was all done on paper. For the life of me, I don't see how the work being on-line would have changed anything (other than being nearly impossible at the time).

    It all comes down to whether the professor indicated the work should be done as an individual. If so, then the student violated the rules and should be punished. I don't buy the argument that we have to protect the students from themselves. I have an expectation of ethical behavior from students. All institutions have an expectation of ethical behavior.

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  3. George in Oregon

    I hope not. Seems to me that learning can be very effective when people get together and work on studies.

    Seems there is more that ample opportunity to confirm that any individual actually learned the material.

    If someone uses the help of others to get homwork done without actually studying themselves then they have cheated. Themselves. No one else.

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  4. I agree. I don't see why students shouldn't be allowed to work together on assignments if the result is that it helps all of them to understand the material better. Some students will necessarily grasp what is being taught in any class better than some others. What is the point of isolating everyone, except to ensure that the students who have a more difficult time understanding the coursework are that much more guaranteed to fail? (I am, of course, talking about students working together, not a cheating situation where one student does all the work and everyone else copies it.)

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  5. Larry: If people want privacy on their social networking sites, they should consider posting legal terms of service to that effect. See http://hack-igations.blogspot.com/2007/11/privacy-advocates-such-as-nyu-professor.html The idea is not legal advice for anyone, just something to think about. --Ben

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  6. In my classes, we had an officially sanctioned and supported news group where people could ask questions, offer help, discuss the assignments and do some level of collaboration. It meant that all students had access to the same information and instructors/TAs could keep some level of control to make sure that there was a line between collaboration and swapping answers.


    Not that it entirely prevented students from e-mailing solutions directly, or having students work head-to-head on solutions, but I think it helped. And with the latter, I remember TAing a couple classes where there were some students who were in real trouble, and if it wasn't for the teams they built, they might not have made it through the class.

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  7. If someone uses the help of others to get homwork done without actually studying themselves then they have cheated. Themselves. No one else.

    No. They are cheating others as well - by getting a higher grade than they earned, they could affect the grades of their classmates at the end of the semester. They are also contributing to grade inflation by acquiring a higher GPA than they otherwise would have.

    The solution to this would appear to be to make coursework and homework only a relatively small fraction of the overall grade for a class, and look out for large disparities between coursework/homework grades and exam grades.

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  8. It is my opinion that students should be allowed to work together as much as possible. However, we shouldn't confuse issues of teaching style with issues of ethical behavior on the part of the students. The professor indicated the students were to work independently. That fact means that any group of students working on the problem set together is wrong.

    We could argue about the school selectively punishing the organizer versus all the participants in the group. The issue about whether the students were cheating seems to be pretty black and white to me.

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  9. Have you been to Yahoo Answers? Most of the questions in math and science are rather evidently homework problems:

    F(x)=2xln(3+x) represented as power series f(x)=∑[n=0 to inf]Csubn*x^n. find 4 coeffs (C1-C4) and R of Conv?

    Yes, well. But putting everyone in a room with pencil and paper, well, students thought of ways to get around such limitations, back in my days when no one had calculators even.

    The essence of the problem is integrity, and despite someone's statements that atheists know how to do morality, they don't.

    Once I understand that evolution imbued me with certain tendencies I call "right and wrong," why should I let those dictate to me what I should and should not do?

    So then everyone becomes their own moral compass, and "cheating," well, in my moral system, it's just what I want to do, which could be my idea of right and wrong--too bad if that impinges on yours...

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  10. gp says,

    I think this is a case of Utopian thinking by the professor. Asking any student in this day and age to complete something delivered online as an individual is simply poor pedagogy.

    That's an interesting opinion but it's completely irrelevant. The Professor asked the students to work independently. They didn't. They cheated. End of story.

    Don't blame the Professor and try to excuse the behavior of the students.

    The only way to enforce this kind of requirement is to use a closed computer lab, with all students present and all being monitored.

    I agree. It's a sad state of affairs that you can no longer trust students to avoid cheating when they have the opportunity. You probably can't even step outside the room for a quick break.

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  11. Isn't part of the problem an educational system that places all its emphasis on earning marks instead of actually demonstrating that learning has taken place? I'm not singling out instructors or administrators or politicians, and I don't want to engage in hyperbole. But we now have this culture that is all about the marks earned on standardized tests and not the advancement of learning. It's no wonder so many students cheat--if marks are all that matters, then the end justifies any means you can get away with.

    I'm opposed to the assigning of these kinds of take-home individual assignments. Not because I think students shouldn't be held to some level of integrity (I think they should), but because instructors and their institutions waste so much time and money trying to clamp down on it, and every cheater who doesn't get caught just diminishes the effort and accomplishment of every honest student.

    Out-of-class assignments, research, reading, labs, etc., should be tools to understanding the material. If students help each other on these, I think that's a positive development. If you want to evaluate an individual student's understanding and accomplishment, that's what monitored situations like seminars and examinations are for.

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  12. False Prophet says,

    Out-of-class assignments, research, reading, labs, etc., should be tools to understanding the material. If students help each other on these, I think that's a positive development.

    For the record, I agree with you 100%. I actually encourage working in groups and I've reserved rooms for study groups in my course.

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  13. I usually tell my students "You're encouraged to discuss the homework with other students, but the answers you submit must have been composed by you alone." But students aren't always listening, so we need to repeat such instructions at different times and places.

    Now I'm going to add the above sentence to this week's written homework instructions.

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  14. In my writing classes, I integrate collaboration into in-class activities as well as some outside assignments. By having students work together in class, I think it helps them to learn how to work together in a way that is mutually beneficial, as opposed to the unfair relationship involved in cheating. Of course, I still see some examples of plagiarism, although what I see most of the time involves students copying work from Wikipedia or other internet resources. Making collaboration a part of my pedagogy can't stop teaching, but I think it helps to teach students how to work together fairly.

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  15. I think I have to take issue with the claim that students nowadays have less "honour" than their contemporaries several decades ago. I do not doubt that the modern age has facilitated exchange of information, nor do I doubt that the incidence of academic dishonesty has risen, but I find the concept of "honour" in this context to be gratuitous. One would have to prove that modern students have more of a willingness to engage in academic dishonesty than students in the past to even attempt introducing the concept of "honour" in this discussion. Not only would proving that proposition be difficult, but I can think of several arguments against a difference in "honour". For one, students have always discussed course material; only the medium has changed. It is very likely that if students had the Internet decades ago, the incidence of academic dishonesty would have comparably risen then too. Secondly, you're conflating the rise of academic dishonesty with the rise in willingness to engage in academic dishonesty. The connection is hardly concrete, as I've alluded to.

    I would hardly blame old fogies for indulging in righteous tutt-tutting, as the concept of a difference of values between the young and their contemporaries of a different era is seductive and oddly requires little burden of evidence. Yet, I would liken the concept of "honour" with respect to academic honesty to be analogous to claims of differences in sexual mores, financial prudence, or any number of other things. I will admit that it is possible that modern students may have more of a willingness to be dishonest, but I've only noted subjective characterisations prone.

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  16. dunbar says,

    I think I have to take issue with the claim that students nowadays have less "honour" than their contemporaries several decades ago.

    Your point is well taken. I can't prove that one way or another.

    However, there was a time not so long ago when things like "Honor Codes" were quite common in universities. I experienced this directly while I was at Princeton University in the early 70's.

    Here's a brief description of the current honor code at Princeton University.

    Undergraduates at Princeton University agree to conform to an academic honesty policy called the Honor Code. Students write and sign the honor pledge, "I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this examination," on every in-class exam they take at Princeton. (The form of the pledge was changed slightly in 1980; it formerly read, "I pledge my honor that during this examination, I have neither given nor received assistance.") The Code carries a second obligation: upon matriculation, every student pledges to report any suspected cheating to the student-run Honor Committee. Because of this code, students take all tests unsupervised by faculty members. Violations of the Honor Code incur the strongest of disciplinary actions, including suspension and expulsion. Out-of-class exercises are outside the Honor Committee's jurisdiction. In these cases, students are often expected to sign a pledge on their papers that they have not plagiarized their work ("This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations."), and allegations of academic violations are heard by the University Committee on Discipline.

    I'm pretty sure that most students at the University of Toronto would see this as silly and old-fashioned. That's just another way of saying that they would never agree to abide by an honor code.

    Most of my colleagues would be flabbergasted at the thought of leaving several hundred students alone in an examination hall. Yet, that sort of thing used to occur regularly at universities with honor codes.

    Dunbar, I don't think you realize how much things have changed. You say, ...

    Yet, I would liken the concept of "honour" with respect to academic honesty to be analogous to claims of differences in sexual mores, financial prudence, or any number of other things.

    I don't get the comparison. Yes, it's true that students of my generation were much more free about sex than today's sexually repressed students. After all, it was the 60's.

    Yes, it's true that today's students are much more concerned about money than students of the 60's.

    Those differences are well known. So why do you think there can't be any differences in "honor"?

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  17. The Professor asked the students to work independently. They didn't. They cheated. End of story.

    This part is so blatantly obvious I wonder why Dr. Moran chose to post this issue, particularly with a question as the title.

    If the professor's explicit request is not completely unreasonable, then any student that directly violates the request, using any medium or method, is guilty of cheating.

    There may be grounds for argument and discussion about the issue of appropriate academic punishment based on the specifics of the case, but as far as the original question "is it cheating?" goes, the answer is clearly yes.

    It's a separate question being addressed when we discuss the apparent "Utopian thinking" of the professor, or trends in student attitudes through time.

    Now I'm curious: when did Princeton and other universities abolish their honor codes? Why did they do so?

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  18. Honour codes just seem to be an unnecessary bureaucratic ritual to me. The University of Toronto already has a code of behaviour, and flouting it results in suspension and expulsion and all that jazz. You are now linking a bureaucratic ritual with the willingness to commit academic dishonesty, which is just as tenuous as your previous attempt to link increased academic dishonesty with increased willingness to commit as such. My own point with comparisons is that young people behave mostly similarly, irrespective of what era one points to. If you think students in the 60's were that much more sexually active, for instance, than modern students, you should visit a nightclub or something.

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  19. Dunbar says,

    My own point with comparisons is that young people behave mostly similarly, irrespective of what era one points to.

    I've lived through two eras and I say you're wrong. My parents lived through three and they also say you're wrong. Their youthful generation was nothing like mine.

    How many eras have you experienced?

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  20. The internet hasn't changed much. I expect most cheating still happens off-line. Facebook has just made the cheating public, so why all the fuss? Is this a matter of maintaining academic standards, or just keeping cheating out of the public eye?

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