University Faces Off with Facebook Generation

By Reuters  |  Posted 03-20-2008

A Canadian university has instilled a culture of fear by threatening to expel a student for cheating because he set up an online study group on Facebook, critics said this week.

Toronto's Ryerson University threatened to expel first-year computer engineering student Chris Avenir last week, arguing that his study group on the Facebook networking site might encourage cheating.

Ryerson decided to lift the expulsion threat on Tuesday, but Avenir will get zero credits for the course work discussed on the Facebook forum last autumn, and the university has put a disciplinary notice on his record.

Canadian media analyst Jesse Hirsh said Ryerson's actions send the wrong message to students, most of whom spend a lot of their time on the Internet.

"It sends a clear signal to all the kids that innovation is not only frowned upon but will be punished and that if you use emerging technologies in innovative ways, you risk being expelled from the school," he said.

But James Norrie, director of the School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson, said on Thursday the issue was one of accountability, whether online or offline.

"This is nothing to do with technology, how can it possibility create a climate of fear?" he said.

Members of the Facebook study group -- Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry Solutions -- said the group was set up to help each other with homework assignments and to understand class lectures and had nothing to do with cheating.

Ryerson, however, said the group offered the potential for cheating on a large scale.

In an interview, University of Toronto philosophy and media studies professor Megan Boler said that all universities encourage collegiality and discussion and that meeting online is actually very transparent because there are traces and records of everything discussed.

"Of course we want to ensure academic integrity, but I think academic freedom and civil rights are equally important, unless we expect students to study in total isolation," she said.