The challenges of learning in the internet age

By Peter Nowak, CBCNews.ca

A first-year computer engineering student at Ryerson is in serious hot water for running a Facebook group that the university says helped him cheat at chemistry. The student, Chris Avenir, is defending himself by saying the Facebook operation was merely an online study group, no different from ones that exist and meet offline. Avenir is facing an expulsion hearing on Tuesday and the issue is sure to get a lot of attention, because it raises a number of questions about how the internet is issued by students.

Both sides have a point. The university argues that homework questions in the chemistry class were to be done independently, so any sort of collaboration to find answers online constitutes cheating. Avenir argues that if that's the case, then the tutoring and mentoring programs the university runs are also cheating. Touché.

The bigger issue revolves around the challenges faced by schools in the internet age. Cheating has been around for as long as learning has (cavemen children probably chiseled answers to questions onto small granite slabs, which they would then sneak into exams hidden in their fur togas), but it's probably never been easier to do it.

Sure, essay-writing services and other cheating methods were available well before the internet but with social networking and file-sharing, students now can get just about any question answered or assignment written instantaneously, and for free. How do schools keep students from taking the easy way out? And on the other side of things, when does a student cross the line from doing legitimate research online to cheating?