Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Academia is doomed in the wired world

OK, so we start with the mandatory link;

Student faces Facebook consequences

Basic premise is simple. The University wants to ban the student for managing a Facebook user group where students helped out on Chemistry homework assignments. The interesting thing about these assignments, is that they actually weren't even given the same questions!

So here's a kid facing suspension for making a virtual study group where people can't even really share answers b/c they have different questions.

There are two big problems here:
  1. Study groups have existed forever and are a fundamental part of university, especially sciences. However study groups are prone to cheating.
  2. Online access to resources have made learning more accessible, but they've also made "cheating" far easier. Universities are mildly scared about the accessibility part as they are financially vested in remaining the key holders. Of course, they're also publicly funded (especially in Canada), so they have to maintain some openness. But what Universities are really scared about is cheating. Credibility is ridiculously important for Universities and "cheating" undermines that credibility.
So cheating is the common factor here. From the academic mindset, the math is simple:
Study Groups = maybe cheating
Online = maybe cheating,
therefore Online Study Groups = definitely cheating

The logic is clearly flawed, and in this case it's pretty clear that no wrongs were committed. In fact, if people were using the group to cheat, it would have been trivially obvious to prove. If two students really wanted to cheat, posting up answers to a Facebook group is the worst possible way to do it.

Of course, the problem runs much deeper than that, this type of behaviour demonstrates a deep-seated fear in the academic halls. And it stems primarily from problem #2.

In all reality, the University should be providing and managing groups for this type of "study grouping". My wife graduated from the University of Manitoba last April and they had a "WebCT" system (now Blackboard). Systems like this increase transparency and provide quality resources for students, but even today it's tough to get full support from the older academics.

I personally love this concept of openness, but maybe the older academics are on to something. They have long been the private gatekeepers of the secret academic world. By increasing accessibility and allowing things like on-line study groups, they've increased their burden of work while reducing the value of their time.

The wired world is a connection tool for everybody. The web is a democratizing tool in an academic world that is far from democratic. This whole concept of suspending a student for managing a virtual study group is nothing but a demonstration of a deep-founded academic fear.

The irony here is that kicking out our hero will likely cause a backlash that will cause the university to lose credibility in the eyes of the public.

It's a bad place to be, of course YMMV.

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