Is a Facebook Study Group “Cheating?”

cheat.jpgWhat’s the difference between a virtual study group & meeting face to face in the library or dorm room?

Policy, please? So far, I’ve got to side with the students, as this makes no sense to me as a virtual educator…

Why does Freshman Chris Avenir (story in the Toronto Star) face possible expulsion from Ryerson University for swapping tips on homework questions via Facebook? The article reveals he’s being nailed with 147 academic charges (one count for each classmate in the group) for his “Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry Solutions” basement engineering group that counted for 10 per cent of the mark.

What’s the difference between slurping coffee in a fluorescent lounge and tip-tap-typing “I don’t get this, can you help me out?” via computer keyboard?

If educators are marketing their Universities by giving away iphones and luring kids with techno gizmos and media incentives for school use, they can’t turn around and accuse the kids of using the media to pool resources and data share, and then call it ‘cheating’ to send lightening thunderbolts of authority and paranoia their way.


18-year-old Chris Avenir (at left, photo from this article in CBC News, Canada) will take his fight before the engineering faculty appeals committee Tuesday…

Without all the paper trail details, it’s hard to deconstruct this fully, but I view Facebook as a social information tool, not some algorithm or data crunching gizmo to mine test answers.

It’s only as useful as the minds behind it…So what’s the rub?

How does this differ from, “Let’s all meet in the quad at 10 and go over our notes for our test tomorrow?” Seems to me, open book is open media. Open media is open source.

facebook-cheating.jpgAfter all, that’s what social media is here to do…collaborate!

Unless this was a blatant, ‘pssst….I’ll post all the answers this week if you cover me all next week’ or ‘for a fee you can log on and snag your assignment completed so you can go to the dance instead’ then I just don’t see the conundrum.

This seems more like a media platform issue than an ethical one.

Feels far different to me than the “cheating culture” of the internet, which David Callahan details extensively in his excellent site on student, corporate, and societal ethical shifts universally. (I’d sure put kids’ media/marketing at the top of the ethics imbalance…)

Moreover, it’s not comfy (or right) for students to live in fear of a misstep…Faculty needs to be straightforward and upfront with all media policy from the get go.

According to Kim Neale, the student union’s advocacy coordinator,

“All these students are scared s—less now about using Facebook to talk about schoolwork, when actually it’s no different than any study group working together on homework in a library…”

“That’s the worst part; it’s creating this culture of fear, where if I post a question about physics homework on my friend’s wall (a Facebook bulletin board) and ask if anyone has any ideas how to approach this — …my prof sees this as ‘am I cheating?’

She points out that it’s common to brainstorm homework in groups, particularly in heavy programs such as law, engineering and medicine, even if the prof says to work ‘independently.’

She also said that each student in the course received slightly different questions to prevent cheating, and she didn’t see evidence of students doing complete solutions for each other…Instead, they’d brainstorm about techniques, saying things like, “Remember what to do when you have positive cations (a type of positively charged ion) and that sort of thing.”

cheating-culture2.jpgKim Neale did admit that the phraseology of the invitation to the Facebook group may have been what landed Chris and his group in trouble, specifically the verbiage:

“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.”

But she countered, “no one did post a full final solution. It was more the back and forth that you get in any study group.”

Of course the writer in me immediately thinks, “this is an engineering group, and they’re gonna hang this kid out to dry for his semantics and word choice?” Sounds like scapegoating to me…

There’s no way of telling from the news reports if this was simply a wired version of a study hall or a savvy media play to game the system…But from the reports that ARE documented in the press, it sure seems like Chris and ALL the students were simply transferring knowledge to one another in 21st century study group style.

Isn’t sharing what you know and actively seeking solutions among classmates a successful way to educate students? At Shaping Youth, we’ve found tutorial/mentoring peer to peer is one of the best ways to cement knowledge transfer!

Chris…Kim…146 others…what do YOU have to say?

Educators: I’d say the onus should be on YOU to be crystal clear on media policy across the board, from the very first syllabus handout. Smart Phones. Internet. Laptops. Social networking. Twitter. SMS Texting. The works. Finite guidelines as to what constitutes a breach would be fair to all.

Again, I don’t know the particulars on the paper trail of specifics here, but if campuses are marketing media tools and then asking kids not to use them that’s ‘cheating’ too…schools flunk that fairness test in my book.

Related Tidbits

YouTube 8 1/2 minute video promo from ACU marketing convergence culture of media on campus. (might as well be an iPhone ad)

Cheating David Callahan’s ‘everything you need to know’ site of related work

Other Facebook related expulsion hearings

MarketNewsGadgetTalk Blog: Is Sharing Study Notes on Facebook Cheating?

DeepJive Interests Blog: For the Love of Digg, We Have to Save Chris Avenir! (hilarious Web 2.0 diatribe w/salient points too)

Visual Credits:

Cheating Hand Photo: Napier Students’ Association, Edinburgh, U.K. (w/outline of clear definitions of ‘plagiarism, collusion, and cheating’ for student clarity)

Photo of Chris Avenir: CBC News Article; CA
Facebook Screenshot: Getty Images/CNN



  1. p.s. And though unrelated, this is a GREAT blog piece on how to get kicked off of Facebook & the conundrums therein:

    It’s from a superb community I just joined that serves as a go-between/ombudsman/mediation form of civility to air news & views/customer service re: corporate conundrums…Sure wish Target would’ve landed there to have a dialog.

    I’ll be visiting it often to track corporate sincerity, it’s called “Get” —Lisa at PEM, this should be in your cue! –AJ

  2. 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 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.

  3. I found this ironically in my e-mail today on an upcoming session at PARC forum/Stanford environs…

    Thursday March 20 ∙ 4:00 — 5:00 pm ∙ George E. Pake Auditorium, Palo Alto Research Center (

    TITLE: “Open Education: Stepping into New Collaborative Processes”

    SPEAKER: Lisa Petrides, Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME)

    ABSTRACT: The open content movement — which involves the aggregation, sharing, and collaborative enrichment of free educational materials over the Internet — is re-energizing teaching and learning efforts and making educational resources more dynamic through a cross-pollination of ideas and expertise. This Forum will discuss open education efforts worldwide, including ISKME’s online network, OER Commons. OER Commons aggregates open educational resources (OER) within a social networking environment to stimulate engagement of diverse populations in accessing and using these resources. Drawing on insights from ISKME’s OER Commons initiative, as well as its research on online collaborative learning environments, this Forum will discuss: (1) how the open education movement is fundamentally about strengthening scholarship and teaching through collaboration — and developing technologies to make that happen; and (2) how this nascent movement is addressing the technical and cultural challenges that impact its widespread adoption.

    ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Lisa Petrides, Ph.D., is president and founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), an independent non-profit educational research institute located in Half Moon Bay, California. ISKME’s work includes applied research, innovative projects, and field-building initiatives in the area of knowledge sharing in education. Petrides has led the OER Commons initiative, an open source teaching and learning network, which focuses on supporting teachers and learners to facilitate the creation and adaptation of dynamic and evolving open educational resources.

    A former professor in the Department of Organization and Leadership at Columbia University, Teachers College, Petrides received her Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University; MBA from Sonoma State University; and was a postdoctoral fellow in the Educational Policy Research Division at Educational Testing Service. Petrides is also a painter and sheet metal artist who exhibits her work throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

    This is the 12th talk in our special forum series on Going Beyond Web 2.0.

  4. Adding this excellent blog post with balanced views from all sides of the academic arena…check it out!!!

  5. More on FB/foibles…what the heck are they thinkin’ here by kicking off homeschoolers for not having a school address?

    There must be a simple ‘extension’ that can be assigned/validated to these kids to use the site w/a tad of configuration?

  6. Verdict just in it appears…Not being expelled but received a ZERO. Fair? Unfair??? Need more facts? Leave a comment!

  7. In other FB news…re: privacy:

    “Facebook has added new privacy tools that give members the ability to decide which other users can view photos, phone numbers and other personal information.

    Facebook also recently started allowing people to opt out of SocialAds, which tell members which of their friends have signed on as fans of particular marketers. One of the complaints about that program is that it violates users’ right of publicity — a variation of privacy rights — by harnessing their name and image for commercial purposes. Users still can’t opt out of receiving the ads, but can at least veto the use of their own image in product endorsements.

    Considering that the site has been plagued with privacy complaints since at least September 2006, when it introduced RSS news feeds to inform members of changes to their friends’ profiles, not to mention the debacle of Beacon — a program that told members about their friends’ purchases — any move to enhance privacy can only help the company’s reputation.

    With the new controls, it also appears the site is increasingly taking on the traits of an e-mail channel or other utility. For instance, if users want to share a photo with just two or three people, they can now upload it to the site and use the privacy controls to grant access to just those people, rather than e-mailing it to them. Additionally, Facebook is taking another step in the utility direction with a new IM program, set to launch in the next two weeks”

    via MediaPost Pubs..

  8. And it sometimes happens that apparently respectable academic publishers also stoop to some very questionable marketing

    No doubt they would cry “WHO? US?!” if anyone suggested for a second that their ethics were compromised.

  9. Thanks for the great tips.

  10. Excellent essay and site. I put a link to your compassion essay on my website. Good work.

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