Are Google Doc study guides ethical?

Study Guides
Some BYU students and professors question the ethics behind Googledocs. (Photo by Chris Bunker)

Harvard University administrators suspected 125 students of cheating last year after noticing similarities in the students’ answers on the take-home exam. These suspicions led to a full investigation where students were interviewed and faced with either a one-year suspension or expulsion if they were caught cheating.

Students were told to not work with anyone else when they received the take-home exam. The case is still under investigation, so how they collaborated is still unknown. Because of the number of people involved in the scandal, investigators suspect technology is a factor.

At BYU, students use technology to communicate and share information online using Google Docs. Google Docs is a program where people can create online documents that can be edited by invited users with an Internet connection.

Students use the program to share notes in class with someone who is sick, to help put together a group paper or study for an upcoming exam by posting the study guide online where everyone can add to it.

“Google Docs is the best thing since sliced bread,” said Andrew Carlos Potts, a junior from Sacramento, Calif. “It is like having a group study session without taking the time to meet up as a group. It is a collaborative effort where you can help each other out. If someone perhaps missed one point made in class or was sick that day, Google Docs can help them understand the material.”

Potts explained how it worked.

He would receive an email in class inviting him to a Google Doc with the class’ study guide pasted in it. Potts was expected to fill in some of the points of the study guide while other students would do the same.

“Obviously you are going to get a few freeloaders who do not contribute, but overall it is an effective way to study the material,” Potts said. “Some people may think it is copying or cheating because you are using someone else’s work or notes, but I see it differently.”

Erin Buckley, a sophomore from Modesto, Calif., does not like using Google Docs, however, mainly because it’s not how she best learns.

“I have used Google Docs probably twice in my life,” Buckley said. “I do not believe it is against the Honor Code, because everyone contributes, but I do not learn the material as well when I read it off of a Google Doc. I would rather make the effort to find the information and do it by myself.”

Benjamin Whisenant, professor of media law at BYU, remembers how studying was when he was in school.

“When I was in college, we got together frequently for study groups, and sometimes they were effective and sometimes they were not,” Whisenant said. “Google Docs actually can be more effective because when you study in groups, a lot of the time is wasted because you are joking and hanging out. In a Google Doc, you are focusing strictly on putting down the information.”

Whisenant has seen Google Docs being used more frequently in the past two years, and his opinion on the use of Google Docs has changed over time.

“Initially, I thought Google Docs was a little sketchy,” Whisenant said. “But truthfully I do not necessarily think it is. Given technology nowadays, you need to use what is available to learn the information. In the end, my purpose and goal is that the students learn the information. If all you are doing with Google Docs is studying from it, learning the information, then taking the exam, I have no ethical qualms with that.”

Emily Bates, an assistant professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department, believes Google Docs are acceptable in class, but with a few exceptions.

“I think there is nothing wrong with using a study guide because it is like using a textbook,” Bates said. “If it is an assignment, however, that is a different matter. The ethics of having someone else write part of your paper is completely dishonest and plagiarism. But if you are studying together and dividing up the study guide between each other that seems completely reasonable to me.”

As of now, BYU has no written policy about Google Docs and its uses. However, Todd Hollingshead, media relations manager at BYU, hopes students will use common sense.

“Just like any new technology, we trust our students to make good decisions and always keep the academic policy in mind,” Hollingshead said. “There is no way to have a written policy for every single thing that comes up, but the academic policy covers things in general. We trust students to use new technology prudently and wisely, keeping in mind that they need to be honest in their academic school work.”

Whether or not the Harvard University students are guilty has yet to be determined, but sharing information via technology is a growing trend.

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