A first-year student at Ryerson University in Toronto who has been accused of cheating after helping run a Facebook study group could get expelled from school pending a hearing by a special committee.

Chris Avenir, an 18-year-old studying computer engineering, denies the academic misconduct allegation, and will take his fight before the engineering faculty appeals committee Tuesday.

If the committee rules against him, Avenir can appeal the decision to the university's senate.

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'This isn't any different from any library study groups or peer tutoring' says Ryerson student Chris Avenir, who is being accused by the school of academic misconduct for being involved in a Facebook study group. ((CBC))

Avenir said Thursday he joined the online chemistry study group Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry Solutions last fall, then took charge of it as an administrator. The group was named after a study room known by students as the Dungeon.

He said the group was essentially a place on the internet where students could ask questions about homework assignments.

"This isn't any different from any library study groups or peer tutoring that has been happening," he said.

One hundred and forty-six students used the group to help each other with homework assignments.

Avenir faces one count of academic misconduct for helping to organize the group, and another 146 counts for every student who used the group.

The professor who taught the chemistry course gave Avenir a "F" after he found out about the group. Before that, he had given Avenir a "B."

A search for the group on Facebook now turns up nothing. On his profile page on Facebook, Avenir wrote Thursday he is "overwhelmed with support and midterms."

Ryerson spokesman James Norrie declined to comment specifically on the case. But he said, speaking generally on academic policy, that the university has a responsibility to ensure students are doing their own work.

'This is not a bunch of old academics sitting around a table saying, "Oh, this scares us." That's not what's happening.' —James Norrie, Ryerson spokesman

"We want them to achieve. But that also means that they sometimes have to do the hard work of learning and not take the easy way out," he said.

Norrie, also director of the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson, said the university must ensure any charge of academic misconduct is investigated, and academic integrity is protected.

"It is not fair to students to perpetuate the myth — and it is a myth — that they can do what they like online and that they're protected because that's only a forum for young people where they can do what they want to do, and that's really not accurate," he said.
 
"It is our job to protect academic integrity from any threat. And if that threat comes from new online tools, we have a responsibility as academics to understand the risks, to assess those risks and threats, and to educate people about how to avoid misconduct."

Students shocked by allegation

Norrie said the university understands the nature of Facebook and its groups.

"This is not a bunch of old academics sitting around a table saying, 'Oh, this scares us.' That's not what's happening," he said.

Norrie said the university wants to make it clear that its academic code of conduct applies to online behaviour of students.

Students interviewed by CBC News are appalled by the accusations against Avenir.

"They're just trying to cut him down, and I don't even know why this prof is doing this," said Evan Boudreau, a second-year journalism student.

"It's just completely ridiculous." 

With files from the Canadian Press