Using Facebook for Creating Study Groups

Some time ago, Campus Technology published an article about a student in Toronto who set up an online study group inside Facebook. At its peak, his group included 146 students. However, the instructor for the class didn’t approve, so punished the student (Chris Avenir) by charging him with academic misconduct.

The homework questions counted for 10 percent of the grade in the class. When an administrator discovered the group and informed the professor, Avenir received an F and was charged with academic misconduct, punishable by expulsion. An appeal filed last week was to be settled this week by the campus.
According to the Ryerson school newspaper, The EyeOpener, Avenir was singled out even though he said he never posted any answers on the discussion pages. He is quoted as saying, "What we did wasn’t any different than tutoring, than tri-mentoring, than having a library study group."

I would tend to agree with the student in this case. How is this really much different than getting a group together at the library to study? The main difference here is scalability. Because the students worked together online, more students could participate at any given time. Furthermore, students could study asynchronously, when it was convenient for them. This is definitely an area where the Net Generation has a lot of expertise because they simply grew up with this technology. They actually expect to be able to tap into these resources as a matter of course.

The challenge for instructors will be to structure their course material such that students will not simply be able to memorize formulas and steps in a problem set, but will have to demonstrate a sound knowledge of fundamental concepts. For instance, a student who memorizes all of the problems on a calculus exam can provide those answers to other students or regurgitate them on demand. However, if the student doesn’t really understand the epsilon-delta definition of a limit, then they will not really understand how derivatives work and will not be able to really understand higher-order concepts of calculus (I know this from my own difficulties in figuring out calculus).
They also will not be able to adapt one instance of a formula to unfamiliar territory that uses the same concepts. Trig identities give a lot of students trouble because of all the sines, cosines, and tangents. However, if you accept the notion that sin x can be treated as a single term equivalent to u, then you start to realize the trigonometry is really not that much different than algebra with a few extra twists.
However, students who are constantly engaged with other students and actively try to teach their fellow students about how a particular subject actually works will often times benefit tremendously when they take their in-class exams. I have had at least one professor challenge us to teach another student in the class about the course material. Unfortunately, I failed to heed that advice, so did not learn as much as I could have. I didn’t learn calculus until I had to write it for online users in the BrainTrax brains (I already had a good working knowledge of algebra, but I really started to learn it again when I had to write for three different audiences).