It’s about the work, dummy June 18, 2009Posted by gordonwatts in university.
When San Jose State University student Kyle Brady published the source code of his completed homework assignments after finishing a computer science class, his professor vigorously objected. The professor insisted that publication of the source code constituted a violation of the school’s academic integrity policy because it would enable future students to cheat. Brady stood his ground as the confrontation escalated to the school’s judicial affairs office, which sided with the student and affirmed that professors at the university cannot prohibit students from posting source code.
And second, the thing that made me decide to write this post:
Cory Doctorow shared his thoughts about the issue on Thursday in a blog post on BoingBoing. Doctorow suggests that assignments are ultimately more valuable to the students when the work that they produce can have broader purpose than merely fulfilling academic requirements. He also rightly points out that peer review of source code and studying existing implementations are both common practices in the real world of professional software development.
These are both compelling points and they illustrate how traditional academic sensibilities can be detrimental to the intellectual development of students.
Give me a break. This has nothing to do with any high end ideals. It has to do with work. In lower division courses there are only so many types of homework problems you can write without making something really complex, and in upper division courses creating a good problem that is hard, solvable, and interesting takes an immense amount of time. The professor of the course just wants to be able to re-use the homework problems – and cut/pasting the answer from the web is something he/she wants to make as hard as possible.
I wrote a bunch of problems for my graduate course this last year – they took a lot of work – I spent hours on them. I’d very much like to be able to reuse them – or reuse the core of the problem. If the solutions were widely available then that means I have that much more work I need to do next year.
I think, on its own, the answer to the question about a student posting their source code is clear: they should be allowed to do it. But the issue isn’t black and white when you get right down to it – that solution is a product of both the students and the professor’s sweat. Finally, actually saying that you can’t post code is totally unenforceable in this day and age (e.g. RIAA). There is also the basic fact that a student that decides to cheat is only cheating themselves… boy, that sounds kind-a lame, doesn’t it?
I don’t have an opinion in this particular instance. But I think the overly simplistic view that is taken is a bit sensationalist. Cory Doctorow wrote a much more nuanced bit:
But the convenience of profs must be secondary to the pedagogical value of the university experience — especially now, with universities ratcheting up their tuition fees and trying to justify an education that can put students into debt for the majority of their working lives. Students work harder when the work is meaningful, when it has value other than as a yardstick for measuring their comprehension.
I disagree. It isn’t just about convenience of the profs – it is about having a good course for the next student. It is about the professor learning what worked to teach the students this time and refining it next time – these things have to be factored in. Both the students and the professors, it seems to me, have a shared responsibility here.
Though a bit later on he seems to go off the rails (no pun intended):
I’ve always thought it was miserable that we take the supposed best and brightest in society, charge them up to $60,000 a year in fees, then put them to work for four years on producing busywork that no one — not them, not their profs, not other scholars — actually wants to read.
Well, gee. When you start learning something you have to start with the basics. You can’t start with Quantum physics – you need to understand a bit about mechanics, E&M, and other things – after all, quantum had better devolve to those in the macroscopic world! You can start out students on cutting edge research – we all do it when we take on undergraduate researchers – but they have to learn the basics too. It is, sadly, a fact of life. If you don’t know how to start a program, how can you learn how to write cool code!?!?
BTW, if you read down, you can find a response from the student involved in this case.