Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Collaboration, Course Management, and Cheating

The story that appeared in the Boston Globe about the "cheating scandal" a few days ago (behind a paywall, sorry) spent a certain amount of time on the perceptions of accused students that they were involved in an adversarial rather than educational process with the University. I was reminded that it has been more than thirty years now since the educational philosophy of the Administrative Board was laid out by then dean of the College John Fox, in his Annual Report. It is an excellent report--and reminds me how much we lost when the protocol of public annual reports, by both the President and the deans, was abandoned a decade or so ago, after having been continuous since 1830. Today we see committee reports, and we see brief statements and speeches by educational leaders, but we almost never see such considered essays on complex and important issues facing the university. To get to the report of the dean of the College from 1980-81, click this link and then go to 19757 in the Sequence window.

The report describes the premises of the Board's operation very well, and why they differ so much from the expectations of a criminal trial. Students are expected to be both honest and candid, a lot of the work happening in one-on-onbe conversations between deans (then called "Senior Tutors," a nod to their status as educators). Most of the time, by the time the case actually comes to the Board, everyone is on the same page about the facts of what happened, and what the Board is likely to respond as a result.

There could hardly be a system less akin to the criminal justice system, in which accused parties are under no obligation to talk to prosecutors, and generally have every move scripted and vetted by their lawyers.

It has always been my view that the paternalism of this system is fitting for an institution, as the 1980-81 report says,
engaged in a task that some might refer to as moral education. Obviously, the Board's objective is not to instill specific moral beliefs. Rather the Board provides a process through which the College reaffirms the very general institutionally sanctioned practices, procedures and rules that provide a framework within which different moral values and goals can be acted upon and pursued. Honesty, and fidelity to agreements, are among the fundamental expectations of this framework. (pp. 57-58)
There is, of course, a downside to relying on students' candor.
I have emphasized earlier that the Board assumes that students will be utterly candid. I should add here that in operating on this assumption, members of the Board are not being naive. There are occasional cases in which a student's denial of wrong-doing defies the belief of the most credulous. In a few cases a student will proclaim his innocence to a Board whose members are convinced of his culpability; seldom does the Board act in the face of an unambiguous denial, and only when it is impossible rationally to believe the student innocent.… One result of the Board's high standard of proof is that each year there may be a few cases in which members of the Board are persuaded of a student's wrong-doing but decline to act because, by the Board's standards, the case is "unproven." (p. 68)
The report goes on to note that this is OK. An unpersuaded student is not going to learn anything from being punished; and truly bad pennies, as it were, tend to turn up again. (And, of course, the student might actually be telling the truth.)

The examples in this report are almost all from a world where plagiarism and citation are more well-defined than they are today, when a course like Gov 1310 may encourage collaboration in note-taking and prohibit it in answering take home exams (but then what if the collaboratively prepared notes were prepared before the exam?). In such an environment, it does no good to say "cheating is cheating"; there are indeed, as I said to the Globe, shades of gray. It would be interesting to see an articulation of how the Board thinks about the new world of collaborative academic work.

But the 1980-81 report also reminds me how dependent the operation of the entire system is on the premises and limitations surrounding it, for example the view that when doubt remains about a set of facts, deference is given to the student. That is consistent with the optimistic but not naive assumption that most Harvard students are eventually going to graduate and become constructive members of society. As Kingman Brewster put it in his 1971 Baccalaureate address,
The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In commonplace terms, it rests on the generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst of the stranger. (Quoted in Kabaservice, The Guardians, p. 458.)
Which brings me back to the worries about Campus Culture as I discussed a few days ago. I hope we are not evolving for a more literal-minded application of our rule book, just at the moment when we are encouraging more collaborative work and more work that is at the technological edge. I hope we would not throw the book at the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, and I hope we will not punish students by the letter of the law in cases where the applicability of those laws is ambiguous. The imperative for equitable treatment of all students should not mean the end of a certain generosity of spirit toward them. Because if we lose those generous and paternalistic educational values in our disciplinary process, if we de facto are evolving toward a system that is more "brittle" as one of my colleagues put it, we might as well switch over to a purely adversarial and punitive process for adjudicating allegations of dishonesty, as some have argued is fairer, if less flexible.

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