Calgary

14 University of Calgary students accused of misconduct for sharing answers in chatroom

More than a dozen University of Calgary students taking a third year geology course this semester have been handed academic misconduct notices after sharing tutorial answers in an online chatroom.

Students say rules for online 'open-book' course were not clear

One student accused of misconduct for sharing test answers says the U of C course was open book and the professor gave them contradictory and confusing instructions. (David Bell/CBC)

More than a dozen University of Calgary students taking a third-year geology course this semester have been handed academic misconduct notices after sharing tutorial answers in an online chatroom. 

But one student says the course was open book and the professor gave them contradictory and confusing instructions.

The student — whom CBC News has agreed not to name because of ongoing academic standing proceedings — says she received an email to her university account from students inviting her to join a chatroom for the course at the beginning of the semester.

"Because it came to my university email, I thought, 'perfect, this is university sanctioned, it's all open-book assignments, so this is the perfect way to discuss class material and connect with students,'" she said. 

The student says that for the first three of four tutorials, students were not just sharing answers but explanations to answers.

"So someone would say, 'I don't understand this,' and you would help them out," she said. 

No one from the University of Calgary was made available for an interview on this issue. 

In a statement, the U of C said the professor discovered last month that many students in the class of 350 were sharing answers for tutorial assessments on a Discord server that were supposed to be done individually. 

The school says the professor posted a reminder on May 31 for all students that the tutorial assessments were to be done individually.

Accused student says sharing stopped

"However, many of these students continued sharing answers," reads the statement.

The student who spoke to CBC News says she agrees that's what happened, and says students stopped after they were made aware what they were doing was considered against the rules.

"That chat was deleted and we all went our separate ways," she said.

But she says being told collaborating was against the rules confused her, and seemed like a bit of a mixed message from what the instructor had told students at the outset.

"The professor many times said, 'Feel free to Google if you have questions and you're not understanding. Google is your friend.' So why is it OK for us to Google but not for us to ask our classmate for a question of material and gain understanding from them?"

This past week, 14 students from the Geology 305 course received academic misconduct emails.

"The email said, 'we have evidence you cheated on half of the tutorials so you fail the course,'" said the student. "But, they haven't presented any actual evidence beyond when people didn't know what they were doing was wrong."

The student says for her, this means she's out more than $600, and if her appeal isn't successful, she'll have to accept a failing grade — meaning her graduation will be pushed back an entire semester.

'We are deeply disappointed' 

The U of C says that maintaining the integrity of the institution is very important and holding students accountable for behaviour is an important part of the discipline process. 

"While we are deeply disappointed with the actions of a small group of students, we trust our students to maintain a high level of integrity with any coursework," reads the statement.

The university says it has a number of policies and procedures in place to help it hold any students accountable for cheating. 

"The change in course delivery to an online format presents new challenges, and we have had to adapt our approach in how best to monitor the situation closely."

For students like the one who spoke to CBC News — who has never had any academic issues before — the accusation of cheating is devastating.

"I was so sad because I honestly thought it was such a great way for students to connect, and I've been at university for three years now and I've never been in a situation like this before," she said. 

"Students collaborate together when we're [physically] together … so it's quite shocking to see something that has gone on in person for decades all of a sudden be declared this academic misconduct and you fail."

Prof says aim was flexibility

In an email shared with CBC News, the course professor told the class that providing the course fully online was a first, and that the initial thought was to provide students with lots of flexibility to complete coursework at their own convenience. 

"While this worked for many, others couldn't resist the opportunity to share answers, thereby committing academic misconduct," wrote the professor. 

The professor said while there were rumours floating around on Reddit and other online forums that nearly half the class received notices of academic misconduct, that was not the case.

"I am sure numerous students committed academic misconduct and were not caught. I encourage those students to reflect on the risk they are taking with their academic careers," the instructor wrote. 

"But also look at it this way: a degree is just a piece of paper. Any value attached to a degree is related to the knowledge and skills you acquire from applying yourself to your studies. If your goal is just the degree, then you are missing the point of university and wasting time and money."

Many students have never experienced online learning that we're now doing, so a lot of us had no idea this was considered wrongdoing.- Geology 305 student

The student who spoke with CBC News says she will appeal the decision against her, and that she wishes the university had taken this as an opportunity to teach rather than punish. 

"Many students have never experienced online learning that we're now doing, so a lot of us had no idea this was considered wrongdoing," she said. 

"I really wish they would have either released something to say, 'For the spring courses, this is a standard. This is what we expect' or 'Please don't engage in certain online activity.'"

The university says academic misconduct decisions are made by the associate dean and not the individual departments.

Students have the right to meet with the associate dean to respond to the allegations against them, and are able to appeal the decision to the university's appeals committee.

In addition to getting failing grades for the tutorials in question, students who accept guilt or are found guilty following an appeal are also required to take academic integrity workshops.

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