Facebook cheating scandal nothing new

Students have always shared assignments

Students are accused of cheating all the time. And yet, when you add Facebook to the mix, every newspaper in Canada publishes a story.

Such is the case for newly-minted celebrity Chris Avenir, who is facing expulsion from Ryerson for his role in a Facebook study group. The first-year engineering student is the subject of multiple articles in the Globe, the Post, CBC, the Star, community papers, and student papers from all over North America. For all his headlines, Avenir has attracted a crowd of supporters (fans) who claim sharing answers online is not cheating. They have a website where users can sign a petition and even purchase “Chris Didn’t Cheat” hats and t-shirts.

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What did Avenir do to deserve his fifteen minutes of fame? What almost every student does at some point in their post-secondary career: he discussed and exchanged homework assignments.

But he did it online — on the popular social networking site Facebook, which seems to have a life of its own in the media, fueled by curious grownups who want to understand the online phenomenon.

The National Post made a similarly obvious point in an editorial yesterday: “The Facebook scandal doesn’t really have anything to do with Facebook. An engineering professor at the Toronto school gave his students a specific instruction that their take-home assignments should be done independently. One of those students, Chris Avenir, allegedly ignored the instruction, joined an existing study group devoted to the class, and invited everyone in it to ‘input solutions’ to the assignments so they could be shared.”

It seems to me that this hullabaloo — while no more significant than any other cheating incident — does point to a more important issue when it comes to academic honesty: most students don’t really understand what cheating is. Whether or not Avenir’s supporters are right that this was not a case of cheating, it is painfully clear that there is a disagreement about what is allowed. Call it a failure of the university to inform these first-year students. Call it the inherent laziness of a malignant narcissist, as Heather Mallick so pretentiously called Avenir. But don’t argue that this is some new problem cooked up in the tubes of the internet.

Most of the students I know who got busted for cheating (especially plagiarism) did not cheat knowingly. They didn’t understand how strict the rules were. Or they mistakenly mixed up a direct quote in their notes for their own paraphrase. Or English was their second language and they stole a few too many phrases.

Avenir probably fell into this category. He’s an 18-year-old student in an intensive program who was most likely trying to improve his mark, but not intentionally intellectually shortchange himself. Students share notes and answers all the time and Avenir surely didn’t realize he would be held personally accountable for what 146 of his fellow students also did.

Those who argue that this issue brings up “important questions about the Internet’s role in homework” miss the point. If officials at Ryerson uphold Avenir’s expulsion, they better start expelling many more students. Avenir’s infractions are no different than what has been happening in the halls of universities forever, except that his cheating was publicly documented on Facebook.