Collaboration – where do you draw the line?

One other interesting issue that has come up in my conversations with students and staff about collaboration, now that it is formally part of learning and teaching approach, is a fear that they are “not doing it right”. Moving from prior education environments where collaboration is not encouraged, it is difficult for our students to immediately understand the boundaries of collaboration, and that there are boundaries.

Many students reported a fear that they would do the wrong thing – that they were afraid of being found guilty of plagiarism or cheating; and so they would simply avoid all collaboration as one way of ensuring that that did not happen. Given that so much emphasis is placed on teaching students about plagiarism and cheating, and rightly so, it is interesting that we don’t often teach them about the interaction between collaboration and these topics.

We often encourage our students to work collaboratively, both outside of the formal structures of classes and activities within a course and within. However, without some education or structure as to what that actually means, I think we are putting unnecessary barriers in the way, stopping our students from embracing collaboration in its best forms. One common description of the boundary between collaboration and cheating in Computer Science is the separation between design and code – i.e. you can discuss ideas, but you can’t share code. Another is that you can talk but you cannot write – i.e. anything as part of a verbal discussion is fine, but as soon as you put pen to paper, then you may be pushing the boundaries. Both of these are useful within a certain context – but it is the context that is often missing from these discussions with students. Neither of these “guidelines” would necessarily be appropriate within a collaborative classroom.

By providing more explicit structures in our courses, by tagging classes, or activities as collaborative, we provide some of this context. But – and this is the issue – we do not provide enough context if we do not spell out what the rules are in a collaborative class in contrast to an non-collaborative class. Does anything go? Are the students able to work together at any stage, apart from a final quiz? What about non-collaborative sessions? Are our students able to discuss their designs but not their code? It’s not about spelling things out in mind numbing detail. It’s about letting the players know the rules of the game. This is particularly important when we change the rules by changing the teaching approach.


One thought on “Collaboration – where do you draw the line?

  1. This is a very difficult problem because we often end up having to evaluate actions in terms of their impact, rather than the original intent – and this is where rules may or may not help, because you start to run into the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.

    Ages ago, I worked on some graphics to indicate what worked for a particular assignment. Was discussion ok but not code? Put the discussion label on there but put up the ‘no code copying’ icon. Iconography as a consistent visual image can be very powerful but, of course, requires you to define all of the actions that have states, and the degrees of those states.

    What is most difficult is where students don’t separate design discussions from coding in their heads because they lack the process maturity to understand that they have changed phase. As a first step, we have to clearly define and identify the phases, get students used to knowing which phase they’re in and THEN we can define legal phase transitions and which activity is allowed in which phase.

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