06 March 2008

Accusations Fly at Ry High

Ryerson - the polytechnic that refashioned itself as a university, thus earning the monicker, "Ry High" - is embroiled in yet another controversy. In a manner that demonstrates its well-tuned knee-jerk, Ryerson University has charged a first-year chemistry student with
...academic misconduct for helping run an online chemistry study group via Facebook last term, where 146 classmates swapped tips on homework questions that counted for 10 per cent of their mark. The computer engineering student has been charged with one count of academic misconduct for helping run the group – called Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry Solutions after the popular Ryerson basement study room engineering students dub The Dungeon – and another 146 counts, one for each classmate who used the site. Avenir, 18, faces an expulsion hearing Tuesday before the engineering faculty appeals committee.
This charge is wrong on so many levels, revealing the complete cluelessness of the Ryerson administration. At the most basic level, first-year students in the sciences have always been encouraged to collaborate on difficult problem sets and to learn from each other. In my first university physics class (about 100 years ago or so), Professor Ivey said to us in an off-hand way, "Now I know that you all form consortia to work out the problem sets..." We looked at each other. Consortia? Does that mean study groups? (We were engineers.) And a study group that sustained through our four-year program was born, inspired by the prof who knew darn well that no single individual was capable of working through the homework he assigned by him/herself. And this practice sustains to today. "It has long been a tradition for students to brainstorm homework in groups, particularly in heavy programs such as law, engineering and medicine. Each student in the course received slightly different questions to prevent cheating, she said, and she did not see evidence of students doing complete solutions for each other."

But let's assume, for the moment, that the issue is collaborating on homework is verboten and subject to academic sanction. Have students helping each other in the study hall or library been brought up on charges and threatened with expulsion? Have any other of the 146 participants in the Facebook group been charged?

The answer to both questions is a resounding No! In persecuting Chris Avenir, Ryerson administrators are responding in a juvenile, "child educator" way. They seek to make an example of Avenir, to create a chill among students. It's not so much that the group in which Avenir participated provided complete answers to the questions - the unique-questions-per-student protocol prevents that. It's that other enterprising students could theoretically turn Facebook into a thieves' den of illicit homework answers, and that would never do.

In their minds, Ryerson administrators must maintain their control over students and the mode of learning, true to their 17th century pedagogical heritage. Metaphorically, this is Ryerson U's president, Sheldon Levy, wearing a long, schoolmarm-ish dress, thwacking Avenir over the head with a yardstick in the one-room schoolhouse that is still, lamentably, Ry High.


Update (12 Mar 2008): Here's an interview that I did with Global TV news about this incident, and the potential ramifications for Ryerson.

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Anonymous said...

The homework questions counted for 10 per cent of their mark.

and if you look at the Ryerson University Student Code of Academic Conduct


"b. Cheating

i. using materials or aids not expressly allowed by the instructor in an examination or test;

ii. copying another person's answer(s) to an examination or test question; copying another person's answers to individually assigned projects;

iii. consulting with another person or unauthorized materials outside of an examination room during the examination period (e.g. discussing an exam or consulting materials during an emergency evacuation or when permitted to use a washroom);

iv. improperly submitting an answer to a test or examination question completed, in whole or part, outside the examination room unless specifically permitted by the examination format;

v. resubmitting altered test or examination work after it has already been evaluated;

vi. presenting falsified or fabricated material, including research results; or

vii. improperly obtaining, through deceit, theft, bribery, collusion or otherwise, access to examination paper(s) or set of questions, or other confidential information.

Mark Federman said...

And if this is all that Ry High administrators are going on, there is absolutely no case.

This section on cheating as cited applies specifically to examinations and tests, not homework. Besides, if it did (in some Kafka-esque fashion) be deemed to apply in this case, then every single student who consults another in a library, study hall or dorm room should be expelled as well.

Sorry, Anonymous, but thanks for playing. And thankfully (I hope) you're not studying law.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I'll play too! And I'm not studying law.

Section b.2 applies to exams and tests, but also to "individually assigned projects" and states that you can't copy another person's answers to them. If the Facebook invitation asked users to post complete solutions (as it did) then is that not facilitating cheating by making available complete solutions to individually assigned projects, specifically the homework assignment worth 10% of the student's grade?

Anonymous said...

There is no evidence, that Chris or any other student used the site to cheat in any way. The syllabus of the course specifically said assignments must be done individually. There has been no proof presented that any student completed the assignment while others were present. A similar forum on the school's "Blackboard" site was also taking place where these online questions were being discussed. How is it fair to condone one site and condemn another for the same exact thing?

Mark Federman said...

Good thing you're not studying law there, anonymous. There is no evidence that Chris Avenir copied answers - in fact, since each problem set was unique to each student, copying answers would be fairly useless. The problem is that Ryerson administration over-reacted, not realizing that the same activities go on in a variety of venues, both online and offline. They reacted to the fact that Facebook was involved, and that clouded their judgement.

Sadly, when a BAH organization is shown to have acted foolishly or unwisely, it enacts organizationally defensive actions that compound their foolishness, but often at the expense of the innocent. I hope that if Chris Avenir is not absolved of these baseless accusations, he pursues recourse through the real judicial system. Ryerson's reputation deserves the blackening it will receive if it continues this ill-advised action, maintaining that it is, was, and always will be correct, despite the facts of the case.

This evening, I heard a spokesperson from Ryerson pontificating about academic integrity so as to sway public opinion in its favour, without actually referring to the facts of the case. Chris Avenir is being defamed and slandered by implication, a shameful act by a cowardly institution that seems to know that it is in the wrong here.

Anonymous said...

I'm a student at Ryerson, in the engineering faculty, actually, and this has me annoyed and frustrated. Extending the policies online leaves too much room for gray area. What if I share notes only? What if I share answers that freely available from the prof? I really hope the administrators reconsider.

Anonymous said...

Good post Mark...

Why must students be chastised for showing passion about their subject matters?

The "authorities" might as well ban email, IM and search.

They claim they are not scared of new technology. I beg to differ...

Anonymous said...

I don't think students are being "chastised for showing passion about their subject" but rather for cheating, or perhaps facilitating cheating, by asking students to post solutions to the questions, that were assigned as individual homework, worth 10% of each student's grade. The admin are reacting to students cheating by sharing their answers (implied by the student who set up the Facebook page asking others to post complete solutions), not to students using technology.

I don't see this as a "gray area." Study groups are one thing; complete answers to problems meant to be done by individual students being provided is something quite different. Regardless of your faculty, you can't have someone else do your homework for you. If a student sets up a webpage or a low-tech bulletin board on his dorm room door where complete answers to individual homework assignments, this is a violation of academic integrity. It's no more acceptable than buying a term paper from an online source "for reference only."

Anonymous said...

Because we all know that study groups won't have complete answers to the problems.

And that 10%, frigg it's going to hurt their grades.

Ian D. [luminoushadow] said...

Someone should advise the accused student to start a petition against the school to drop its unwarranted threat of expulsion and to offer him an official apology for their misappropriation and duly bias negligence in the assessment of the matter.

Benjamin Wright said...

Mark: 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

Davin Carey said...

Hey Guys...this is horrible. As a soon-to-be grad (hopefully) from San Diego State...this is more of the old thinking that the ivory tower shoves down our throat.

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?

Don't let Chris take the fall on his own.

Go to www.ChrisDidntCheat.com and buy something from the CafePress store. The money will be donated to Chris. He can either use it for legal expenses or for a round of beers (which I think we can all agree he'll need during/after this debacle).

Spread the world.