It's about time someone made a point that has been lost in all the back-and-forth over Ryerson University's "Facebook scandal." That point is: The Facebook scandal doesn't really have anything to do with Facebook.
An engineering professor at the Toronto school gave his students a specific instruction that their take-home assignments should be done independently. One of those students, Chris Avenir, allegedly ignored the instruction, joined an existing study group devoted to the class, and invited everyone in it to "input solutions" to the assignments so they could be shared. He got caught, was given an F in the course, and is currently appealing his expulsion for academic misconduct. The fact that the study group was a Facebook group has nothing to do with the nature of the offence or the controversy over Mr. Avenir's punishment.
Ten years ago, it's what journalists would be cluelessly calling an "e-mail scandal". Twenty years ago it would have been a generic "computer cheating scandal." Forty years ago, maybe it would be described as a "mimeograph scandal." ("Dear Sir: cannot something be done about these ignominious, strange-scented contraptions?").
There exists a ridiculous tendency for behind-the-curve scribes to seize upon new media as somehow responsible, in themselves, for humans doing the kind of things humans have always done. In the Ryerson case, this tendency has descended to the level of low comedy. Facebook really, truly doesn't do anything to facilitate information-sharing that e-mail and older online applications like Usenet don't. The only semi-relevant difference is that Facebook is so new that users make false assumptions about the security of the information they upload to it.
Predictably, some people are demanding that those false assumptions be honoured as facts. The Ryerson Students' Union is, according to the Ryersonian newspaper, "fighting to make sure students can't be punished for what they do or say on Facebook" -- even if what they're doing is cheating on an assignment for a Ryerson University class. We have a funny feeling the student union will lose this battle.
The technological angle is causing everyone to overlook the vastly more meaningful development symbolized by the affair. Apparently, in the year 2008, professors find it necessary to specify that homework problems in an engineering class should be solved by the student, rather than copied from a brighter classmate. Not only that, but doing so apparently provokes a widespread reaction akin to "Pfft, whatever." And not only that, but when someone is caught defying the direct instruction, and accused of cheating, hundreds of his fellow students will rally behind him and declare him a victim of gross injustice.
Call us predictable, but we suspect it just might be the case that a feel-good primary education system that emphasizes collaboration over individual effort, and self-esteem over knowledge, has left a few Ryerson undergraduates poorly prepared for life in hard, advanced disciplines such as engineering.
It is scarcely possible not to think so, given claims like this high-pitched whine from Chris-DidntCheat.com, a website for Mr. Avenir's supporters: "Students don't have a chance to learn because we are too busy completing assignments!"
According to this world view, there is some way of qualifying for the terrifying responsibilities of engineering other than sitting down as an individual and solving difficult quantitative problems assigned by an engineering professor. If there is one, we would be happy to hear about it. But if it were generally adopted, we are not sure we would ever again feel safe crossing a bridge, flushing a toilet, or even booting up our computers to access that mysterious, soul-corrupting site known as "Facebook."