Guilty by association

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A month or so ago, an incident at Ohio State University made headlines. One or more students had posted information on business course assignments in a GroupMe study group.  The type of information shared violated the University’s code of student conduct.  As a consequence, more than 80 students – all members of the GroupMe group – were charged with cheating.

GroupMe is a free group messaging app, widely used to send messages and documents simultaneously to all members of a group. Members of educational GroupMe groups often use it to share dates due and study tips and readings. When collaboration is permitted, this kind of app can be a great boon in assisting collaborative work. In this particular case, however, some users had overstepped the mark and had posted suggested answers to homework assignments. Legitimate collaboration had become illegitimate collusion.

By and large, the headlines (of which this is just a small selection) seemed to get more dramatic as each new report was published:

The Lantern (6 November 2017)
Use of GroupMe app leads to code of conduct violations

Columbus Dispatch (8 November 2017)
Ohio State accuses 83 students of cheating in a business class

Mail Online (10 November 2017)
Ohio State says 83 students used messaging app GroupMe to cheat on their business class

New York Daily News (10 November 2017)
Nearly 100 Ohio State University students accused of using app to cheat 

Fox News (13 November 2017)
Scandal rocks Ohio State University as 83 students accused of cheating via app

Inside Higher Ed (13 November 2017)
Ohio State Accuses 83 of Cheating via GroupMe

Washington Post (13 November 2017)
Dozens of Ohio State students accused of cheating ring that used group-messaging app

Slate (14 November 2017)
More Than 80 Ohio State University Students Are Accused of Using GroupMe to Cheat

The actual non-legitimate sharing of information was reported to OSU authorities in April 2017, but it was more than six months before the investigations became so widely publicised.  It seems that, even now, the matter is still being investigated.  This length of time is worrying because some if not all students in the GroupMe group face sanctions which may include repetition of the course or even a failure to graduate.  It is a long time to be under suspicion and unsure of one’s fate. I cannot find a later report which details the outcomes. The cases may still remain unresolved.

Knotty questions

One reason for the delay could be fairness.  The comments posed in some of the online news reports and elsewhere shows awareness of moral dilemmas and pose many knotty questions.  Have all members of this GroupMe group benefited from the sharing, are all equally guilty?  Even if some, most even, did not benefit from the sharing of information, are they guilty by association, they could have benefited?

  • How do you prove whether individual students benefited or not?
  • Should the students who posted dubious material receive heavier sanctions than those who simply read it?
  • Should members of the group have ended their membership of the group if they realised that it was being used to cheat?
  • Would everyone – or anyone – realise that what was being shared overstepped the bounds of legitimate collaboration?
  • Should anyone who did recognise that the sharing had gone too far have reported the sharing to the university authorities?
  • Should students not join such groups at all, in case they might be used for non-legitimate purposes?

Questions such as these have been raised most especially by Nick Ross in Inside Higher Ed on 14 November 2017, Cheating Without Intent? and in Carmen Carigan’s Op-Ed piece for the Indiana Daily Student on 15 November 2017, Online class messaging is not worth it.

It’s not new, of course, and not a unique instance, as several of the reports point out. Even pre-internet, schools’ academic integrity policies often carried the warning that if academic dishonesty is discovered in a group assignment, then all members of the group would share the same consequences.

I recall one of my early academic honesty workshops. I used a paper (found on a free term paper site) which, in the introduction, stated how the investigation had been divided, who had contributed what … and it was readily demonstrable that part three of the paper had been copied verbatim from a weekly magazine.  The question I posed to participants was, if the school’s academic honesty policy states that all taking part in a group project receive the same marks and/or the same consequences, should group responsibility still hold when it is possible to discern which member of the group has cheated?

What if the group numbers 83 students and it is not possible to determine who benefited?

Should benefit be part of the considerations?

In matters of plagiarism, it is often held that plagiarism is plagiarism, whether the writer intended to plagiarise or not. This is the International Baccalaureate standpoint. The IB similarly rules that if a student in an examination room is found to have brought in  unauthorised material, then the candidate has breached IB rules whether that student intends to use or has already used the unauthorised material or not.

By this argument, guilt would extend to all members of a GroupMe or similar group if anyone in the group if anyone in the group posts non-legitimate material..  Indeed, one of Carigan’s suggestions is

… keep your GroupMe controlled — five people or less is probably ideal. 

Set strict expectations for that communication, and if you feel that behavior in the group is unethical, leave the group.

This frightens me, it smacks of technology forcing us to change our behaviour for fear of what might happen.. This is not a good way to go: technology becomes our master, not our tool; instead of empowering us, it disempowers us.

Would I be happier if Carigan had said, “…. if you feel that (someone’s) behavior in the group is unethical, make that person leave the group“?  I probably would be happier.. That is the way to go, the group doing the right thing.

Honesty honestly, anyone?

Postscript (added 6 January 2018):

It is difficult and probably counter-productive to try to include every possible scenario in a school’s academic honesty policy. On the other hand, it is possible to present examples of possible problems and issues under a wider head, in this case, perhaps a paragraph or section on collaboration and collusion.

Given the nature of social media, this type of sharing is likely to be prevalent today. It might be prudent for the school’s academic honesty committee (or equivalent) to consider procedures and consequences. Group and individual responsibility might be an issue to discuss with students. Indeed, discussion with students on any academic honesty issue can help bring an academic honesty policy to life, help students connect the often dry statements with their daily lives, and give them ownership of the policy.

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