Online study groups: Threat or menace?

by Clay Shirky on June 30, 2008

Thanks to Henry for the invitation to guest-post. I’m a long-time reader and admirer of CT, and my goal this week is to ask a couple of questions that I don’t think have obvious answers, but which I think are quite important to the development of a networked society, and about which CT readers may have a lot to say.

The first question is pedagogical: it’s obvious, both from observing my own students and from paying attention to social media, that the work students have always done in groups is now migrating online. What, if anything, should the academy do to adapt?

The poster child for this change, of course, is Chris Avenir, who was the admin for a large Facebook group discussing chemistry homework from Ryerson University. <a href=””>Avenir was threatened with expulsion</a> (though he was not expelled), and was given a 0 out of 10 for the homework being discussed on the site.

While the decision over his expulsion was still pending, Avenir said “But if this kind of help is cheating, then so is tutoring and all the mentoring programs the university runs and the discussions we do in tutorials.”

After deciding not to expel Avenir, Technology Dean James Norrie said “Are we Luddites here at Ryerson? No, but our academic misconduct code says if work is to be done individually and students collaborate, that’s cheating, whether it’s by Facebook, fax or mimeograph.”

Now, my natural inclination is to think Avenir is right and Norrie is wrong — that learning is a basically social activity, and that the model that treats the effort as an exercise in quality control of individual minds is not merely silly but hypocritical — as Avenir notes, discussion, both formal and informal, is a large part of the pedagogical landscape.

And yet I also know that there are fields where problems are complex but answers are simple — there are an infinite number of mathematical formulae for which 42 is the answer, but your possession of that number only operates as proof that you understand a particular formula if I also trust that you weren’t just handed the answer.

So, to adopt The Economist’s old motto of “Simplify, then exaggerate”, here’s a false dichotomy: does the growth of networked support for student-to-student study mark the appearance of the previously invisible but critical engine of learning, or will its normalization set up a harmful social gradient, where nerd kids give likeable kids the right answers with no work?

And should the response on the part of the academy be a) “We should support this important change”, b) “We have never really cared what students do outside class, and this is no different”, or c) “Deep socialization of study is a core threat to academic integrity, so this must be stopped”?

Guestblogger: Clay Shirky

by Henry Farrell on June 30, 2008

We’d like to welcome Clay Shirky, who will be guestblogging with us for a week. Clay is a consultant, journalist, sometime academic, and general _provocateur._ His recent book, Here Comes Everybody (Powells, Amazon) is a very good, well-written and interesting take on how the Internet has lowered the transaction costs of group formation, and the consequences this has for politics, commercial relatoins etc. It’s one of the best books on the Internet that I’ve read in the last few years. We’re happy to have him on board.

Taking the Mickey

by Henry Farrell on June 30, 2008

More on the Mickey Tax, courtesy of a set of talking points forwarded by my person in the Travel Industry Association, which are (to put it mildly) quite unconvincing on the major points of contention. I’ve decided to adopt this piece of legislation in the same way that some people and organizations adopt highways – expect more on this over the coming months. Also, NB that this is one of those activities where the Internet really _has_ changed everything – it would have been infeasible for me to investigate this stuff without Congresspedia, online access to Her Majesty’s Government’s taxation guidance documents for airlines etc. Talking points and response below the fold.
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Gender codes in daily life

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 30, 2008

Recently I was talking with a political philosopher, who is based in Italy, about “my reasons for supporting birthleave for fathers”: He told me that in Italy parenthood is strongly gendered, and gave the example of a note put up at his kids’s school, stating that ‘Today Mothers should pick up their children at 2 pm rather than 4 pm’ (or something very similar). If I ever were to read such a note, I would be outraged that the school would assume that it could only be mothers who would get the kids from school; he, as a father, was outraged that the school assumed that there would be no fathers picking up the kids from school.

In my view there are plenty gendered messages in daily life, and many of the people I encounter are not aware of the gender codes they create, reinforce, and spread. I few months ago I thought I should write down during one year all the public and private gendered codes and messages that I encountered in daily life and explain why I find them problematic (or not). For time reasons, and perhaps also because it would be difficult pursuing such a project without violating people’s right to privacy, I haven’t embarked on that project yet, though I may do so one day. I think such a gender codes diary would show how many gender codes surround us, many of which are uncritically absorbed by consumers and citizens. Which was the last one you encountered?

No idea more obscure and uncertain

by Kieran Healy on June 30, 2008

You only have to hang around the world of social science research- or policy-related blogging for a few hours before you come across someone willing to snottily inform you, or some other luckless interlocutor, that although the finding of this or that paper may appeal to you, nevertheless don’t you know that Correlation Is Not Causation. Often this seems to be the only thing they know about statistics.

I grudgingly admit that it’s a plausible-sounding rule, and in the textbooks and stuff. But, to be honest, I read it too many times in various posts and comments threads the other day, and in my raging pique I found myself thinking that the next time it happened I would say, “That’s completely backwards: in fact, causation is just correlation” and fling a copy of Hume’s first Enquiry at their head. Or at the screen, I suppose, but that image is less satisfying, because now who’s the crank on the internet, etc.

This Halloween when we take the kids Trick-or-Treating, I will dress up as Correlation, as befits a social scientist. My wife will of course be Causation.