It's a familiar scene: Some college students get together to form a study group. They're all enrolled in the same course, one that has a reputation for proving extraordinariy difficult. Each student naturally wishes to earn the best grades he or she can, so each comes to the conclusion that putting heads together increases the chances of academic success.
The collaborative impulse gripping these students seems a reasonable one. After all, the proper goal of college education should be seeing to it that students learn course material. Slavish dedication to grades and grading turn universities from humane into monstruous institutions - institutions only compound their monstrosity by drawing their sustenance from the pockets of the very students they terrorize with the consequences of a low grade point average.
The ravages of the recent recession have shown everyone precisely what these consequences can be, namely, anything from low pay in a dead-end job to extended bouts of unemployment. What intelligent college student would want to expose herself to such unpleasant postcollegiate possiblities? If you can credit college students with understanding nothing else, you can commend them for their awareness that a college degree is a career game-changer.
And so the name of the game is success by any means save that of outright cheating. But what's an online university student to do? Unlike her traditional, residential college peers, an online university student can't easily form study groups that meet in person. She can, however, form a group that meet in cyberspace.
Online study groups are attractive for the same reason online colleges are attractive: They're flexible, convenient, and relatively free from time and space constraints. If you imagine that an online university student has made for herself the very same calculations that her residential-college peers have made for themselves, then you imagine that she is motivated by earning the highest marks possible so as to increase her chances of rewarding employment down the line.
But it seems that online study groups tend to arouse suspicion in ways that in-person groups do not. An incident at Ryerson University in Canada a few years ago presents a fine example of the distrust in which faculty and adminstrators hold online study groups. "First-year student Chris Avenir is fighting charges of 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," reports an article in TheStar.com. "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."
Students hitting the books together risk having the book thrown at them, it seems, if your Avenir's case is at all representative. What kind of reasoning is at work that leads university officials to equate online study groups with cheating? The short response is that it may simply be a generational thing; older faculty and administrators fail to appreciate the changing nature of work and value creation in a digital society. In a bit of commentary on the incident at Ryerson University, TechDirt.com makes largely this same point. It observes that "people working together to collaborate is an important skill in the real world, and what some people consider 'cheating' these days seems a lot like the type of collaboration that kids are quite used to doing online, and which should serve them well later in life."
So Avenir and his peers were simply doing what they do best - working collaboratively in order to produce the best possible outcome for everyone involved. To decry this effort as an instance of misconduct would seem to place the person decrying on the wrong side of history. Ballooning enrollment rates at online universities means that technology is fast changing not only the materials and methods, but also the ethics, of higher education. It's not as if Avenir and his fellow Ryerson students invented the technology they used to form an online study group; much of that technology had been in use in courses already.
Technology development in the area of online study groups is, in fact, a burgeoning markets. Venerable textbook publishers have fielded their GradeGuru, an online learning network that encourages the formation of study groups. Other entries include Microsoft's Windows Live Spaces and SkyDrive.
Along with the development of online study group technology have arisen sites like Notelog and Cramster. These sites work as repositories for material of various regularly offered courses. These sites thus allow online study groups present and future to benefit from the efforts of online study groups past.
The bottom line is that the perception that there is something unethical about an online study group is simply that - a perception. It will take some time for the biases of faculty and administrators to change. But once they do, online study groups will step out from under a cloud of suspicion and will join the cloud that is all the available software online and traditional residential colleges students are making tremendous use of.