THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

September 20, 2012

As Harvard University investigates 125 students suspected of collaborating on a take-home examination, academics across the blogosphere have been weighing up the scandal's implications for university assessment.

"No matter who you are, a story like this is likely to [press] one of your hot buttons, whether it's the declining moral standards of kids these days, the moral core of elite educational institutions, the inherent injustice of top-down rulemaking, or whatever," writes Ed Felten, director of Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy, on his department's Freedom to Tinker blog. "Not to mention that the course was 'Introduction to Congress'," he wryly adds.

Professor Felten - a past member of Princeton's disciplinary committee - concludes that there could be more to the scandal (and indeed any allegation of cheating) than meets the eye.

In all disciplinary cases, certain facts must be established, he writes. "Exactly what did the instructions say? Exactly what did the students do? If they claim to have misunderstood the instructions, was it a reasonable mistake, or did they wilfully distort [matters] and avoid asking for clarification?" He concludes: "Depending on the facts, there might not have been any 'cheating' at all."

He argues that collaboration is important and that young people should be taught how to work in groups "not only to teach collaboration skills but also because group assignments can be larger and more complex - and hence more realistic".

However, in an elaborate sporting analogy, Professor Felten dismisses the notion that the accused Harvard students, if found guilty, should be congratulated for their impromptu group approach.

"Even the most collaborative professions, such as team sports, do in fact train alone sometimes. Basketball is a collaborative game - there is always a team on the court trying to cooperate toward a common goal - but basketball training involves a mix of group and individual activities.

"Players might [practise] their shot alone, or lift weights alone, or run alone, to make themselves better contributors to the group. It stands to reason that academic training would be the same, encompassing some mixture of group and individual work."

In conclusion, Professor Felten writes: "I don't know if any Harvard students deserve punishment for breaking the rules. But I do know that if they were clearly instructed not to collaborate on the exam, and they collaborated anyway, it's fair - and necessary - to punish them."

Taking a slightly different tack is Paul Greatrix, the University of Nottingham's registrar, who on his Registrarism blog cites the proliferation of "massive open online courses" as a reason why " inevitable".

In the case of online courses, with huge numbers of students taking each class, automated or peer marking and "no quality assurance", he says, "it is simply impossible to be confident about the integrity of the assessment process". Inviting students to sign a pledge that they will not cheat "is, at best, a little tokenistic".

"[The] rather dispiriting conclusion we can draw from all of this is that human nature is such that many people will, if you give them the opportunity, cheat," Dr Greatrix adds.

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