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Why Luddites shouldn’t handle policy decisions.

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

I couldn’t let  this one pass by without comment.1

 A first-year student at Ryerson University faced an academic misconduct hearing this month for alleged ‘cheating’ over Facebook. Chris Avenir was ‘caught’ moderating a study group for students enrolled in a chemistry course.

When did this become a crime? Students at most universities (including Ryerson, I know for a fact), have department-endorsed study rooms where students come and go at will, swapping notes and exchanging solutions. This is virtually the same thing.

Thankfully, Avenir wasn’t expelled, but in what I view to be a gross injustice, he was given an F on an assignment and a note in his permanent record, stating he was disciplined. And they’re touting this as a huge victory for students at Ryerson, because he could have faced 147 counts of academic misconduct instead.

There is a huge problem here, and it doesn’t have to do with cheating online. The problem is that Avenir’s chemistry professor insisted that students work independently.

The expectation that students work on their own, in a vacuum, to solve problems and complete assignments belongs to a model of learning that became obsolete in the 19th century. No student is an island anymore, and nobody gets anywhere meaningful in complete isolation.

The professor, and likely the entire Faculty Appeals Committee at Ryerson, belong to an era where independent work was still valued. They also belong to an era where talking pictures were all the rage, computers were giant machines that filled entire rooms and took 5 hours to perform calculations on punchcards, and people still paid typists by the page to run off copies of their theses.

See a problem here? These people have no business shaping educational policy at a 21st century post-secondary institution. Their values are out of place, and so are their conceptions about education.

If anything, the 21st century will be all about collaborative learning and problem solving. It will be about groups of students working together, pooling all their resources, to tackle problems an entire order of complexity higher than any of them could solve alone. Good educational policy should reflect this. It should encourage students to ask each other for solutions, not penalize them with draconian policies when they’re caught doing what they’ve been doing for at least 2 decades already.

In an era where one of our world’s foremost minds has no qualms about posting his life’s work online, and calling on mathematicians, physicists and particle theorists to read, refine and augment it, you would think that a few stodgy professors at a university claiming to be at the cutting-edge of applied sciences might want to rethink their stance on collaboration.

They’re probably too busy trying to open an email attachment in WordPerfect format.

  1. By the way, thanks, CBC, for the wonderful site re-design, that offers no formatting-stripped print option. I guess I missed the memo when this became acceptable practice for reputable online news sources…
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