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Business - Written by on Wednesday, March 12, 2008 12:33 - 7 Comments

Denis Hancock
The Ryerson Facebook dilemma

So what should universities do about facebook groups acting as “study groups”?

This is a very important question at Ryerson right now, as a student is facing possible expulsion because he created a facebook group where, according to him, students could collaborate on small homework assignments. His supporters argue the group was productive in helping each other collaboratively learn problem solving methods. That’s good. The counter-argument, of course, is the forum effectively “invites” people to post and share answers… which can sound a lot like cheating. That’s bad.

It’s quite a tricky issue to deal with. As anyone that has been through the school system knows, students are graded and evaluated based on performance on assignments and tests. While cheating on assignments has been around as long as assignments have, it’s sure gotten a lot easier – if not a small group on Facebook, a quick search on Google might just kick up a very similar solution to the problem you are looking at. Marks can be swayed, and important awards won or lost, based on one’s skill in using a search engine.

The most obvious solution would appear to be doing away with assignment marks all together – let people collaborate and work together anyway they want, with the focus on preparing for tests. However, in many academic disciplines assignments and essays (i.e. what’s easiest to cheat on), at least historically, have been superior measures of how well a student truly understands a discipline. When everything is about “the test”, and that’s all students prepare for, and some instructors start “teaching to the test”, some academic richness (and important critical thinking skills) can easily be lost. So alternatively… well, any thoughts?


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Matt Woodhill
Mar 12, 2008 15:11

As a recent college graduate, with less than one year since I walked across the stage, I can certainly speak to the influence of the Internet on modern education. Our entire building had wireless connectivity, and all three computer labs had students behind screens whenever they were open.

Collaboration was a key element our curriculum, with numerous group/team projects and presentations. Working together is obviously critical, since it comprises so much of the modern business environment. While teachers are quick to embrace “teams” and the theme of “globalization”, they are slow to embrace globalized collaboration where students get the answers requested of them from anyone, anywhere, and anyway they can. This latter method also comprises a growing part of the modern business environment.

We operated this way because everyone had the same shot at a high score, but we certainly worked differently when, as in business, someone would win and others would lose. When scarcity is introduced the methods and ethics change dramatically. Perhaps scarcity is a way to shape the direction of effort, rather than obtuse restrictions on sources of information or methods of collaboration.

Mar 12, 2008 20:02

The fundamental answer that should be sought from students who participated in these facebook sessions is, “did they learn during their participation in the collaborative study sessions”.

There is nothing inherently wrong, or new, about students getting together to collaborate on problems, whether it be on the Internet or around a table in the cafeteria. In fact, I would argue that group learning, particularly where students help each other to learn is one of the most powerful models of learning and it is a model that is encouraged in organisations that apply the principles of knowledge management.

However, students must use the collaborative opportunity, again, either on the Internet or around the cafeteria table, to participate in learning. It is reasonable to expect that students know that simply copying someone else’s answers is wrong, and it is reasonable for them to expect to be severely reprimanded if they are caught.

While the Internet has certainly made it easier to copy someone else’s work, good search engines also make it a lot easier to detect when a student falsely represents work as their own.

When I taught in university several years ago, I worked closely with students and got to know their style. I also knew the books and papers they were likely to reference, years worth of previously submitted assignments were kept on file for reference, and suspicious sentences could be run through a search engine to see if any matches could be found. Some plagiarism no doubt slipped through, but it is pretty easy to detect a cheat who submits an uncharacteristically highly polished paper or two papers that are very similar.

Denis Hancock
Mar 12, 2008 23:40

Excellent comments.

Matt – I’m not 100% sure what you mean by using scarcity to shape the direction of effort. Can you clarify?

Cnidog- the first sentence of your last paragraph is one that I’d hope applies to all university instructors, but it’s an approach that seems to be quite scarce. And group learning? I agree it’s one of the most powerful models out there, and one of the least often employed.

Jeroen Spierings
Mar 13, 2008 3:56

I have only one answer to this question learning by instruction is dead for good we need to change our education system not only in the US but also in other countries in Europe for example. I am based in the Netherlands and use of facebook, the internet in general and other communities is still early days but there are universities who understand it is a collaborative world and the internet is one big learning portal

Mar 14, 2008 0:16

Maybe this case will bring mainstream attention to issues surrounding the variety of learning and teaching practises.
One can only hope.

The World A.T. Ways » In which online social networks inform, empower, and educate
Oct 27, 2008 23:23

[...] youth. Indeed, such excesses function as cautionary tales for our students, warning them of the academic, personal and economic consequences of such public revelations. But should we banish online social [...]

Oct 27, 2009 8:01

I’m not sure I see learning by instruction as dead, but I do see various problems with punishing the students for this.

Top of my list are:

#1 Surely the whole academic process is based round inviting peers to share answers openly?
#2 If the test can be “cheated on”, it is testing students’ information retrieval skills, not their understanding. And if it is testing information retrieval, then they have not cheated by using Facebook and friends, but been clever. They should be applauded.

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