Reconciling the academic and working worlds

A recent story from Network World entitled, “Why Computer science students cheat.” Has itself become a story as it generated a firestorm of commentary in the educational blogosphere.

The original story talked about how first-year computer science students are the most likely students to be caught cheating. The growing popularity and size of introductory computer-science classes, the ready temptation to copy and paste code, and automated software able to track cheating are all reasons why Intro C.S. classes have the highest concentration of cheating.

The nuance – and the controversy – derives from taking into account group work and collaboration. Some students submit the same or very similar code as their classmates because they’ve worked as a group to complete the assignment.

Does this group collaboration represent cheating? Or is it instead a valuable real-life experience in learning collaboration skills – skills used every day in a “real” job?

Both sides to this debate have valid points. What this debate really shows is that in a world of open-sourced knowledge and constant connectivity, educators face a formidable — but not insurmountable — challenge: They need to devise assessment methods (tests, homework, group activities) that align explicitly with the specific skills they desire to assess. And they must communicate the purpose of each assessment very clearly to students

It is hard to argue against students needing to know how to code themselves. Sure, students can ask others and use the internet to find many answers, but students in computer science — and in all fields — need to master the content knowledge of their domains. At the same time, it is also very true that in the workforce today collaboration is a key skill.

That’s why both sides of this debate have a point. And that’s why the burden in this scenario lies with educators to design different types of assessments that assess different skills.

For example, instead of using homework assignments to assess a student’s individual coding knowledge, C.S. professors can use in-class exams (with disabled internet access) to assess that. In turn, C.S. professors can assess collaboration by having students do group homework assignments; professors can implement 360 degree reviews among each group so students can rate each other, helping ensure all students contribute.

To teach in today’s classrooms, educators are challenged to think through all of the different types of skills they’re aiming to impart. Then, they bear the burden of articulating very clearly the skill being assessed and designing the best method of assessment for that skill. If the purpose of the assessment is made clear to students, and if the professor provides the right context for the assessment, then the burden gets placed back where it should be — on the student.

And the salient question in regard to cheating becomes “Did the students subvert the letter and/or spirit of the assessment through their actions?” When the letter and spirit of the assessment are made crystal clear to students, the answer to cheating or not also becomes much clearer.

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