News dropped this month that Ohio State University charged scores of students with cheating in a business course taken in the spring, saying that 83 students used the messaging app GroupMe for “unauthorized collaboration on graded assignments.”
“Students are welcome to use social media tools like GroupMe to communicate with classmates but must remember that the rules are the same for online and in-person interactions,” OSU spokesman Ben Johnson said in an email. “For example, in most cases, sharing the due date for a homework assignment is perfectly acceptable, but sharing the answers to a final exam is not. Students should not share anything online that is prohibited by the rules for the course.”
GroupMe is a messaging app that specializes in creating group chats in lieu of texting or emailing large numbers of people at a time. The app allows for the creation of multiple groups, meaning users could use the app to organize one chat for a course, another for a club or organization and another for co-workers, for example.
The specifics of the case remain unknown for now, but with the app’s prevalence on college campuses -- especially for legitimate purposes, such as to form study groups, organize group projects or disseminate information about the syllabus -- the accusations also lead to some questions about the safety of using the app. In a worst-case scenario, could students who used a GroupMe for legitimate purposes get in trouble when someone shares test answers? Could one post taint a whole group message and everyone involved in it?
There is no indication that scenario applies to OSU necessarily -- the university hasn’t released the details of the case, which would include confidential student information, and the students involved have not yet been found guilty or punished.
But posts on social media and forums throughout the years have expressed concern about students who claim they were caught up in a GroupMe discussion that spiraled into cheating, although they claim they didn’t personally participate in it. Additionally, the app’s settings allow users to disable its notifications -- useful when there are dozens or hundreds of users in a single chat, which might occur in a group made for a large lecture -- meaning that in theory, a student could be oblivious to any cheating going on.
How exactly OSU sorted out the number of students it charged, whether the GroupMe chat in question featured more than 83 students and under what pretense it was created are unclear. Regardless, though, the students have a right to defend themselves just like any other student accused of academic misconduct.
“Any form of academic misconduct is unacceptable and the university takes all allegations seriously,” Johnson said. “Students charged with academic misconduct violations may accept responsibility for the charges or request a hearing before [the Committee on Academic Misconduct] pursuant to the Code of Student Conduct.”
OSU isn’t the first university to say the lines between acceptable and unacceptable GroupMe behavior have been crossed.
In a post on Reddit two weeks ago, a user complained about a girlfriend being caught up in a cheating scandal for simply being a part of a GroupMe message that was organized for the class. Some students started passing along answers to an exam, although the woman apparently didn't participate.
"She was a member of the chat but only said one thing that was non-test related and took her exam at home by herself. Any advice on how she can fight this accusation or what she can do? She is trying to get into the nursing program and has never received a grade lower than an A before. She is absolutely devastated right now," the post read. The woman reportedly was later cleared by the unnamed university.
Representatives from GroupMe did not respond to a request for comment.
But where does this all leave students? Should they abandon the app altogether in an attempt to distance themselves from students who engage in cheating?
That was the conclusion some on the Reddit forum came to.
"She was part of the chat, even though she didn't say anything related to the test she still would have had access to the answers shared within the chat. By agreeing to be part of the chat and not instantly leaving it and reporting it when she realized what was going on, she willingly participated in academic dishonesty," one user wrote. "There's nothing really she can do to fight this accusation at this point, it's too late for her to do anything about it. She'll have to accept the consequences like an adult and learn from this experience."
Others said to avoid using GroupMe entirely in order to avoid the risk of being part of a group where cheating takes place.
Eric Stoller, an education consultant who also writes about tech and social media for Inside Higher Ed, said that instances where innocent students allegedly get caught up in GroupMe crackdowns might to show a lag between university policy and evolving technology.
“It seems to me that this is a case of university policy not keeping up with the times. My guess is that most of the students in these group chats had no intention to cheat and that they were using the GroupMe app (which is hugely popular) to connect with their classmates for the usual types of peer-to-peer student interaction: support, community and networking,” Stoller said via email.
"Again, I think this is a gray area within apps and digital communities. University academic honesty codes aren't usually structured in a way that keeps up with emerging technologies and evolving group communications."