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”?



strategichamlet 06.30.08 at 8:46 pm

I’d opt with b). I always felt like home work (weekly problems sets, not take home tests where the rules are obviously very different) was largely for the students’ benefit. It’s good to make them at the very least write out the solutions, but if they choose to get someone else to explain it to them without attempting it, that will be their look out when it comes test time and collaboration is verboten. I think any turned-in homework implicitly comes with the statement “I understand this” not “I did this without help and from scratch”.


magistra 06.30.08 at 9:16 pm

A good excuse for some Tom Lehrer (from ‘Bright College Days’):

To excuses we fibbed, to the papers we cribbed, from the genius who lived down the hall.

It’s always been possible to get help (ranging from an explanation at a slower pace than the lecturer to all the answers) from another student. The main limiting factors are the obvious one: people get tired of freeloaders and if you don’t understand the material you’re stumped in exams. i don’t seen how online discussions affect either of those things.


Greatzamfir 06.30.08 at 9:19 pm

Is this so different from in-class collaboration? Every teachers has had to choose from time to time whether to separate two students working together, if one is better than the other. The distinction between useful helping and harmful giving answers is hard, but not really that different on the internet.


Greatzamfir 06.30.08 at 9:25 pm

Ah, magistra says the same as I did. Your point about freeloaders is interesting: perhaps online help to many students at the same time makes people more willing to help before freeloader irritation steps in.

And it allows students to find the tutor most likely to help freeloaders, such as this Avenir.


Mary 06.30.08 at 9:28 pm

The students are using tools they’re comfortable with to do collaborative learning–an approach known to improve student learning that many faculty struggle to integrate into their courses. Encourage them! Students who are social loafers (exploiters) will not do well on exams, and the others will learn more.


Peter 06.30.08 at 10:18 pm

Before the rise of the Internet, a large amount of what computer science students learnt about programming and IT was learnt from the people (students, faculty and tech-admin staff) sitting at nearby machines in the university’s computer lab. You had a problem, you asked the guy (it was always a guy) next to you. After the rise of the Internet, a large amount of what commercial computer people learn about programming and IT is learnt from online discussion forums and (now) blogs and wikis. You have a problem, you search for the answer online or you ask on a forum.

It seems perverse that, after the Internet, computer science students should be prevented from learning in the way they used to learn before the Internet and the way they will learn after they graduate, by asking other people. Indeed, given this mode of learning is perhaps the single most important way to acquire technical information in the commercial IT world, it is worse than perverse to not encourage students to learn in the same way while still at college. How to search and ask online should be a compulsory key skill for CS students, and they should be examined on their ability to acquire information this way.


Steve LaBonne 06.30.08 at 10:32 pm

I agree with the previous commenters, especially Mary and Peter, and I also think that assigning turned in / graded homework at the college level is dumb. I’m not even that crazy about the idea at the high school level. Give students more responsibility for their own learning, and let them learn their own lessons about what needs to be done in order to master the material. A Mickey Mouse reward system only delays their maturation (and also penalizes the best students, who may not need to do every problem in order to ace the exams).

And by the way, discouraging collaborative learning, which is the effect of Ryerson’s policy, at the college level is especially harmful to minority students and others from disadvantaged backgrounds. Unlike kids from privileged backgrounds, they are often in the position of having been the only academically talented student in their high school (or at best one of very few) and as I saw for myself (and tried to combat) in my college-teaching days, are clueless about things like how to organize study groups and why they’re useful.


Clay Shirky 06.30.08 at 10:34 pm

@magistra and @greatzamfir: the freeloading angle is interesting, precisely because what online systems are fantastic at is *reducing* the costs of freeloading. (I made this argument eight years ago, writing about why P2P systems weren’t collapsing from Tragedy of the Commons issues: )

In Avenir’s case, I can think of three factors that might have freaked out the good folk at Ryerson: First is the visibility. As with all social codes, the difference between “everyone does it” and “everyone admits that everyone does it” is the difference between a policy that is easy to enforce and one that is hard to.

The second effect is the beating heart of _Here Comes Everybody_ — by lowering transaction costs, Facebook makes it much easier to advertise, discover, join and benefit from such group work online.

The third one though, which I hadn’t considered ’til now, is that because the conversation isn’t just simpler to join, but also simpler to index, search for, and share,as with the way conversations about High Dynamic Range photography on Flickr became archived textbooks.

And given that Avenir was facing *146* charges in his disciplinary hearing — one charge for each member of the group (!) — that one seems plausible. This I think is the answer to zamfir’s ‘is this so different’ question — yes, a single study group that can have 146 members and leave a permanent public record *is* different.

My bias is the same as @mary’s — this change isn’t minor and it isn’t optional, so the academy should just roll with it, but even with that bias, I do think a freeloader-tolerant version of a study group is kind of a big deal.


Steve LaBonne 06.30.08 at 10:39 pm

All study groups, including old-fashioned low-tech ones, potentially have a freeloader problem. And guess what? The real losers are the freeloaders, not the freeloadees.


F 06.30.08 at 10:53 pm

I agree with the others that homework, especially in chemistry, should not be a significant evaluative tool at the college level, and therefore, students should work together as much as they want.


rageahol 06.30.08 at 11:11 pm

while i agree with the sentiments expressed by #9, #10, and others, there are some nuances that might get missed.

there’s the freeloader aspect.
now, i havent used facebook at all, so maybe What The Kids Are Doing These Days is really wildly different from the rest of my online experience. if so, mea culpa. but my sense, from having used these technologies in a collaborative sense (irc is a great example), is that there is less tolerance for outright freeloading in these economies, not more. i dont know, i guess i’ll go look at the discussion logs in question, but my guess is that these technologies increase both the amount of expertise available for freeloaders to utilize, but they also greatly increase the number of freeloaders. this changes the dynamic a bit. as anyone who’s chatted on irc in a topic-based forum can tell you, the way in which you phrase your question is critical to getting help with it, and if people think that you’re just trying to get homework answers you wont get anywhere. it also reminds me a bit of linux-oriented irc channels, where so many questions are answered with “man [command]”

as far as forum style collaboration goes… well, is learning how to search effectively for the appropriate information somehow NOT a skill you’re trying to teach?


The weakest link 06.30.08 at 11:33 pm

I agree that this is different than old-school collaboration around the library table, at least in terms of degree. But to give students some sort of assignment where they can just ‘look up answers’ in some indexed online discussion and thus freeload themselves into a good grade on it indicates that the faculty member is failing to devise adequate learning tools. As Mary suggests, freeloaders will rarely put the necessary time into an online (or offline) discussion to actually become part of the collaborative learning process. In the end, if you give a appropriate assignment and evaluative tools, freeloaders take care of themselves.


jim 06.30.08 at 11:45 pm

My first thought was that technology was equalizing: what had been available to members of Greek letter organizations is now available to Facebook members. And it’s a lot easier to join Facebook than a frat.

The problem here is that in the STEM disciplines we’ve tried to bribe students into virtue: we know that it will benefit them if they work through problem sets, so we give them some credit towards the course grade if they do so. Some of us don’t even look at what they hand in. We don’t care if they get it right; we care they put in the effort.

Maybe we’ll have to reevaluate this strategy.


Peter Boothe 07.01.08 at 12:42 am

When solutions are easy but the problems are hard, we are setting our students up for a harsh time when they encounter a world where the solutions are not necessarily easy or elegant. The two main reasons for complicated problems with simple solutions are: 1) to weed out the ones who “get it” from the ones who “don’t get it” and 2) to be easy to grade. 1 is (arguably) selecting for the wrong thing, and 2 is laziness.

In a collaborative world, pretending that cooperation is bad in any discipline is the wrong message to send.


vivian 07.01.08 at 1:28 am

Indeed. We need to stop worrying about student collaboration and find a new sort of problem set that encourages it. And that needs to distinguish between “these students don’t understand what’s going on” from “these students have no idea how to divide up work and work together” from “gee, looks like these three worked together and ignored the contributions of the other two”. My engineering department was very good at encouraging collaboration, but lousy at diagnosing and compensating for group pathologies.


R 07.01.08 at 1:30 am

The problem here is that in the STEM disciplines we’ve tried to bribe students into virtue: we know that it will benefit them if they work through problem sets, so we give them some credit towards the course grade if they do so.

And there’s probably some benefit to participating in a Facebook study group… Maybe the way to make this work is to give extra-credit to give “participation” credit for actively participating in on-line groups, just as faculty often do for discussion sections.


Sk 07.01.08 at 2:12 am

I’ll gladly play devil’s advocate.

“Now, my natural inclination is to think Avenir is right and Norrie is wrong—that learning is a basically social activity”

No, its not. Learning is an individual activity (I learn, or I don’t learn. Mary learns, or she doesn’t learn). Its possible to be enhanced in a social environment (a group). Its also possible to be enhanced by reading, by watching lectures, by doing problems, by thought experiments, by watching films, or examples, or any number of different activities. But learning is what is done when one particular mind is capable of doing what it couldn’t do before.

“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.””

Note that, at least as presented in the post, the school doesn’t have a policy that group projects are never allowed, or even rarely allowed. Rather, when individual work is specified, it must in fact be individual work. This seems eminently reasonable.



me2i81 07.01.08 at 4:34 am


bi -- IJI 07.01.08 at 4:41 am


You’re not responding to other people’s points. You’re just trolling.

= =

Peter Boothe:

“In a collaborative world, pretending that cooperation is bad in any discipline is the wrong message to send.”

That’s true, but you’ve got to walk before you fly. One should be able to tackle small or medium-scale problems individually, before one starts tackling big fluffy projects where collaboration becomes important. One shouldn’t have to ask an online group to find out that 2Na + 2H2O → 2NaOH + H2.

I guess there’s some sort of balance to be struck here, but right now my (very vague) impression is that the new-fangled ‘theories’ on education tend to think of the big fluffy projects first, instead of starting from the basics.

— bi, International Journal of Inactivism


Alex F 07.01.08 at 5:55 am

Ummm… as far as I can tell, this whole discussion is missing the point. Reread the dean’s comment: “*if* work is to be done individually and students collaborate, that’s cheating”. If, if, if. This isn’t a discussion about the optimal way to assign homework, or whether students should work in groups or not. This is about following the rules. Not all work is to be done individually, but *this* work happened to have been assigned to be done individually.

Students are allowed to work in groups on some assignments, but not this assignment. If students can’t complete this themselves, they have access to the university-approved fora that Avenir lists: mentoring programs and discussion sections, probably office hours for the professor and/or teaching assistant as well. (It’s not clear to me whether independent tutoring would be acceptable here — probably you’d have to work that out with the professor).

Facebook should be treated the same as other study groups, but this assignment was one where study groups were forbidden. I will take issue with the University’s response of focussing on Avenir, though. I don’t think the “head” of a Facebook group should be punished any more than the rest of its members, and if the school doesn’t want to punish everybody then they shouldn’t punish anybody.

One final point — in every class I’ve taken where study groups were allowed, the professor has given us firm rules that there can only be a maximum of, say, four people per group, and that we have to write out a list of everyone we worked with. A Facebook group would almost certainly violate these kinds of rules.


Alex F 07.01.08 at 5:57 am

(Going over the previous comments again, it seems that SK did in fact make the same point as me, much more succinctly. But how was I supposed to notice it — it was too succinct! Any, consider my post an elaboration on his/hers.)


Peter 07.01.08 at 8:11 am

sk —

I’ll play advocate against your devil:

Does education aim for students to learn facts and information (know-what) or does it aim for students to learn to do something (know-how)? At least in Computer Science and the other Engineering disciplines learning know-how is as important, and arguably more so, than learning know-what. In the complex world of technology we now live in know-how almost always requires collaboration. Hence, people who learn know-how also need to learn how to collaborate.

Collaboration is not usually something simple (even asking questions on online forums has its own etiquette), and people have to learn how to collaborate. If university does not teach its students how to collaborate, then it is failing its purpose of preparing students for life outside academia.


Tracy W 07.01.08 at 8:12 am

agree with the previous commenters, especially Mary and Peter, and I also think that assigning turned in / graded homework at the college level is dumb. I’m not even that crazy about the idea at the high school level. Give students more responsibility for their own learning, and let them learn their own lessons about what needs to be done in order to master the material.

Sadly, in my own particular case, the lesson I have learnt about what needs to be done in order to master the material is that I need some external motivator, like having to turn in homework. I know myself well enough to know that if I don’t have that external motivator, I don’t do any hard work. Or at least, many years after leaving university, I have not yet found any other way of motivating myself to do the hard work.

I have no solution to the conflict between the advantages of group working, and the problem of people like me who require external motivation to actually do the hard stuff – assuming that I am not unique. But I think that it is valid for a mature student, or an immature one, to want a course in which the instructor provides external motivation in the form of requiring turned-in/graded homework.


ajay 07.01.08 at 8:52 am

OP and 19: of course. But it’s not an either/or. Yes, a good engineer or whatever needs to know how to collaborate and ask other people for information and advice. But he needs to know other stuff as well.

Apart from everything else: what if the “collaborative” freeloader graduates and ends up in a small work group entirely composed of other freeloaders? Who’s going to do the brainwork then?

And the suggestion that collaboration is all you need to learn is lunatic for another reason; it would imply that degrees are fungible. If I can coast through my history degree by being a good collaborator, doesn’t this suggest that I would be just as good at, say, computer science?


Doormat 07.01.08 at 10:10 am

I think post 18 makes an important point here: I definitely try to encourage my maths students to work in _small_ groups. Ideally, I think I’d like them to try problems on their own, and if they get stuck, to ask friends, look at said friends answers, and they to try to recreate the answer without directly copying. This is rarely achieved, but when I’ve noticed one student basically copying from another student, I’ve also seen them asking questions, and at least trying to understand the basics of what they are copying.

My fear with online tools is that you loose the ability to ask a question and immediately get a reply (often, in maths, with technical formula, or diagrams, being sketched on a bit of scrap paper). Colleagues say that they have seen decent discussions occur on message boards, so this isn’t a universal problem. I don’t know all the fact about the case in the OP, but with 146 members, you have to wonder if anything but simple copying was occurring.

I suppose I have some sympathy with people who say that we need to come up with new learning methods. But problem sets, with perhaps a small assessed component to give motivation or reward (compare to a recent John Quiggin post) seemed to have worked pretty well in the past.


Bill Tozier 07.01.08 at 11:36 am

Now that I no longer have an opportunity to try this in practice (having left the academy for good), I find myself trotting out an old idea more and more often. I would rather see these spurious “honor systems” die, than continue training young people to be some kind of rugged individualist over-specialized hermits that most of the academic infrastructure promotes.

The utility of a college education, whether an undergraduate “designed” to “demonstrate” “basic skills”, or a Ph.D. “designed” to “demonstrate” the recipients’ “ability to follow through on a project”, is nearly zero for me. I work in research, I hire good and smart people—and increasingly I find myself disqualifying over-educated under-experienced applicants.


Dave 07.01.08 at 12:14 pm

Lucky you, to find good, smart people who’ve managed miraculously to become so outside formal educational structures. Guess the rest of us will just have to struggle along.


weserei 07.01.08 at 12:39 pm

It’s not clear to me whether independent tutoring would be acceptable here

It seems to me that this reveals the main problem with a no-unauthorized-help rule: students are often not going to know when they’re in the clear. (Is hiring a tutor different from buying the Cliff Notes? What about buying a senior’s old exam off them? A senior’s old notebook? Their old textbook with underlining and notes in the margins?) We have a strong practical interest in good grades–namely, that our future employers, financial-aid suppliers, and parents all measure us by them. This outweighs the somewhat abstract concern of following exactly the rules that were laid out at the beginning of the semester, and so most students are going to do certain things anyway, on the assumption that they won’t get caught.

Which is a good assumption. Although I’ve personally never used any proscribed forms of assistance on academic work, I’d say about 90% of my friends will admit to having done so (mostly in high school), and to my knowledge none of them has ever been caught. So setting a rule like “no study groups/homework parties/etc.” has nothing like the intended effect–these things are part of the natural order of things in college, like underage drinking. (Which is, if anything, easier to prevent.) To the extent that you make such rules, primarily you’re just delegitimizing yourself as a rule-making authority.


sharon 07.01.08 at 1:09 pm

I was at a workshop discussing using blogs, wikis and similar software in teaching and research very recently. In the context of group assignments it was pointed out that, because wiki software automatically stores the history of every saved edit, it can provide a record of exactly who did what when. Therefore the students know that individual input can be monitored and freeloaders can’t get away with it as easily as they might have done in, say, traditional group presentations (which seems to have a good motivating effect all round). New technologies can sometimes solve old problems as well as creating new ones.


eszter 07.01.08 at 1:45 pm

Interesting questions raised here, a few reactions.

My response would be something along the lines of “a”: We need to recognize new tools and social contexts in which students may be doing their learning outside of the classroom and figure out how to proceed in light of all that. I don’t see how “b” can work for someone who really cares about learning on behalf of students. “c” is naïve by thinking that “this must be stopped” could be an option.

As others noted, the situation is different here from what was possible before, not only in magnitude and ease as pointed out by Clay, but also in that anonymity is an option in ways it wasn’t before. That’s less the case on Facebook, but other platforms such as Yahoo! Answers allow it.

While I appreciate that students can learn a lot in group study settings, there are tons of opportunities online where one can get a quick response to a question without putting in any work whatsoever. One example is Yahoo! Answers where people ask for help with homework all the time and often get it.

Regarding the freeloader problem, while it is the case that certain communities won’t tolerate it for long, again, a community like Yahoo! Answers has less of a problem with it. Not only are there thousands of potential respondents (so for everyone to recognize a user as a freeloader would take a long time), they also have the potential of getting something in return: having their answer picked as the right one and thus gaining more points on the system. (The points mainly have a reputational component there, apparently enough to motivate quite a few participants.)

I feel fortunate that the types of classes I tend to teach don’t require simple answers so I don’t have to worry about some of this. That is, the assignments I give are not ones where there is one correct response. Rather, they are assignments that require students to do some original work (e.g., find a relevant article and summarize it where each student has a different project so the relevant article is unlikely to be the same across students). Of course, it’s still possible to depend on others for help, but it’s much less easy to copy that kind of work. But this is not equally easy to do in all types of courses. Plus it definitely places more of a burden on the instructor as checking assignments takes much more effort.


Safron 07.01.08 at 2:05 pm

Some of you are arguing that rules are rules. I agree in principle, but you’re wrong about this specific example. The article doesn’t go into a lot of detail, but it does state that there is no proof that there was cheating at the Facebook site, and that the administrators were primarily concerned with the *potential* for cheating.

If I were designing a class I would rely heavily on collaboration, but I think a mix of individual and group learning might important in some classes. Teachers should definitely be able to set up their classes that way and enforce their standards.

I think it is totally crazy to worry about the *potential* for cheating on Facebook, however, to the point where you bring people before disciplinary committees for simply creating a study group for a class. Let’s say that you are a teacher who has designed some solo assignments and that it is important to you to enforce that standard. It seems like it would be much easier to verify and track cheating on Facebook (if you could get access to the group). At the same time, using Facebook would encourage quality collaboration for the group assignments.


bob 07.01.08 at 4:24 pm

the problem here is graded homework that contributes to a final grade.


Martin Bento 07.01.08 at 5:53 pm

Perhaps we should use these tools to change the nature of homework. Maybe one idea is to start assigning homework to be done as, for example, wikis by pre-specified groups. People can collaborate, but individual contributions will be tracked, and people will be graded, if at all, on the contributions, not just on providing a “right” answer. The wiki teams could also compete as groups for incentive if desired. Another idea would be videoconference sections, where again individual contributions are recorded, and, possibly, transcripts are generated. In fact, combining the latter with the potential for videotaped lectures with their potential for hyperlinked material, and I wonder if we can start to move towards education that is not only more purely online, but capable of being disseminated much more cheaply than at present. I may naive here, as, unlike most of you, I’m not an academic, but here in the States, getting cheaper high quality education without massive subsidy (since there is not the political support for that) would be a tremendous boon, and this seems congruent with where things are moving anyway.


noen 07.01.08 at 6:42 pm

Networked collaboration will require a switch to Outcome-based education. The traditional model cannot survive pervasive social networks.


noen 07.01.08 at 7:00 pm

sk – Learning is an individual activity […] But learning is what is done when one particular mind is capable of doing what it couldn’t do before.

This is factually incorrect. Humans, indeed all primates, do not learn individually. We learn by observing another perform an activity. Our mirror neurons fire and we imitate the other’s performance and repeat it until a corresponding circuit in our brains is created and we can perform the activity on our own.

Humans have the added complication of language so much of this mirroring takes place in a sort of linguistic space but it’s still the same thing. Behaviors are observed, mirrored and then repeated until the appropriate neural circuit can be physically built.

We call this learning. If you can’t perform the behavior, you haven’t learned it.


Steve LaBonne 07.01.08 at 7:04 pm

the problem here is graded homework that contributes to a final grade.

Bingo. Without that, there is no freeloader “problem”; the “freeloaders” would only be cheating themselves.

I always told my students that I wouldn’t collect or grade problem sets but that if they didn’t work on them seriously I could pretty well guarantee they’d do poorly on my exams. If they choose to ignore good advice, oh well.


Clay Shirky 07.01.08 at 7:32 pm

@alex_f (#20 and #21): I think the issue of scale is an important one — per Mancur Olson, the logic of collective action makes freeriding easier at large scale than small, and understanding what others understand (the key to study groups raising average performance) is easier in small groups than large. In fact, I have a hard time imagining that in a group of 146, some freeriding _didn’t_ happen.

However, I don’t agree that “rules are rules”, precisely because the enforcement of rules affects their meaning. If Ryerson had somehow managed to enforce a ban on study groups _regardless of medium_, then one could argue that this was a neutral execution of rules.

Despite Dean Norrie’s intimation to this effect, however, no such real world enforcement existed. Indeed, study groups were so well integrated into the practice of Ryerson chemistry students that they had a standard, public place to hold their meetings, called The Dungeon, and the 146 online participants all congregated, publicly, in a Facebook also called The Dungeon.

The question here isn’t whether Ryerson is allowed punish students by selectively enforcing such a rule — that’s always an option. The question is _why_ they were enforcing that rule for online behavior that all the students knew was publicly tolerated offline.


Martin Bento 07.01.08 at 7:38 pm

Re: #35. While there’s a lot to that, I’m not sure it’s the whole story. How does one learn to appreciate a style of music that one may not like at first. You can observe someone else listen to it, but you cannot observe the cognitive processes involved in enjoying it. They could try to explain why they like it, but conveying musical experience in non-musical language is notoriously hard, and formal languages for describing music (i.e., notation systems) don’t really convey enjoyment, and don’t seem to be how people come to learn to appreciate music.


noen 07.01.08 at 9:11 pm

Martin @ 38 – It seems unrelated to education and very difficult to test for. If I were to hazard a guess I’d say that one learns criticism by doing it. If that’s what you’re asking, I’m not quite sure.

I cannot observe someone else’s experience but we can talk about it. “How was it for you? It was like this. Oh? For me it was sort of like that but a little more like this other thing” Really? I didn’t get that sense at all.” In talking we both construct a representation of our experience. Perhaps there is an actual circuit created that is then compared and edited? Maybe, maybe not but either way it’s a social activity. The music critic who has never talked to another critic or only with like minded friends isn’t much of a critic.


Mr Art 07.01.08 at 10:07 pm

Having just completed a post-grad Master’s, can I please put the boot into group learning? All it gave us was trouble with plagiarism and freeloading, plus some useful experience on what it’s like to have to work with idiots (AKA the ‘real’ world of work)

This wasn’t just my opinion; most of the class agreed.


clay 07.02.08 at 12:37 am

@mr art (#40): without a lot of details, it’s hard to know what to say. You can certainly put the boot to group learning by opting out yourself, but do you mean that you and your colleagues were forced into it? Or just that you ended up finding it no to your taste after doing it voluntarily?


Martin Bento 07.02.08 at 3:13 am

Neon, I’m not talking about writing criticism. I’m talking about styles of music – free jazz, gamelan, modern classical – that I did not like when I first heard them and now do. And it’s not primarily social, as I got into them mostly independent of a peer group of like interest. I’ve never written criticism of such music, though, and am not sure I could.

More broadly, my point is that I don’t think *all* learning is simply social – that mirror neurons are the whole story. I think we also learn by “doing” – by grappling with problems, even in solitude and even without an explicit model. Suppose someone learns through diligence to solve Rubik’s Cube: that have learned something through experimentation and analysis, no? They may have had the time for this as a consequence of being in solitary confinement.

Since even social learning requires attempts to perform rather than simply observe the target behavior I think it fair to say that this component of “doing” is almost always present. And that the attempt to balance the social aspects of learning and the aspects that come from making attempts at the problem directly is a lot of what is at stake in the problem at hand. Not that I expect any of what I just said is a particularly novel or likely controversial assertion; but that is what I mean.


noen 07.02.08 at 3:34 am

I think working things out for oneself is very valuable as you say. So yes, I think you have a point. As Mr. Art says above his experience was not so great. Perhaps the group needed to be structured differently or made smaller. Small study groups will kick out a free loader. Or perhaps the internet is too impersonal to detect a free loader.

Making your own discoveries and having your own “Ah-ha!” moment is a very powerful motivation to keep on in a difficult subject. Are there fewer ah-ha moments in large study groups?


Tracy W 07.02.08 at 8:51 am

This is factually incorrect. Humans, indeed all primates, do not learn individually. We learn by observing another perform an activity. Our mirror neurons fire and we imitate the other’s performance and repeat it until a corresponding circuit in our brains is created and we can perform the activity on our own.

If this is true, how does humanity do anything new? How do you think the humanity ever learnt to ride a bike?

Humans have the added complication of language so much of this mirroring takes place in a sort of linguistic space but it’s still the same thing. Behaviors are observed, mirrored and then repeated until the appropriate neural circuit can be physically built.

Actually they aren’t. There is far more to learning than mirroring and repeating behaviours, as artificial intelligence researchers have found out. For example, take washing dishes – an activity most of us have learnt. Say we learn to wash dishes by watching our fathers wash dishes at home in the kitchen. But then, we grow up and leave home and must wash dishes for ourselves in a different kitchen. Most people who wash dishes are perfectly capable of washing dishes in a new foreign kitchen, but if we merely imitated dad’s performance we would not be. For example, in my childhood home, the dish detergent was kept on the windowsill in front of the sink. In my first flat, there was no such windowsill and we keep the dish detergent to the side of the sink. We also brought a different detergent. So Dad, to add detergent reached up and placed his right hand around the yellow bottle. I, to add detergent, had to reach to the left and place my hand around the green bottle. If I merely imitated my Dad’s performance, I could not have made that adjustment. But I did, without problem. Another example, some dishes require more scrubbing to get clean than others. And the dishes in a home change over time, and furthemore the dishes we have as adults are often different from the dishes our Dads washed at home. Yet people can wash new dishes.

To really learn to wash dishes requires that the learner forms a conceptual model whereby they can separate out the important ideas from site-specific details. That’s what makes artificial intelligence so difficult, it’s one thing to create a computer that copies behaviour, it’s another thing to make a computer that understands washing dishes and can apply the basic concepts in new situations. But most humans pick that up fine.


Ben Hyde 07.02.08 at 2:55 pm

I’m reminded of the homework requesting students to outline how to measure the height of the physics building using a mercury barometer. Trading the janitor for the information being one of the answers.

Nicely provocative question, Clay.

It made me smile to see people argue that rules is rules. Collaboration/conspiracy was rare in the past; but only because of lack of skilled and the difficulty of collaboration. Solitary exercised based learning made sense on that landscape. That landscape is over. That bubble has burst. The barriers have evaporated and students are highly practiced in collaboration now.

Sometimes rules become unnatural. For example, the road has a natural speed limit and a posted speed limit. If the road’s natural speed limit is 70 miles per hour posting and you post it 25 that undermines the legitimacy your authority.

In this scenario the university authorities have no idea, in-spite of their protests to the contrary, how much of the nature of the game has changed.

I’ve heard older university faculty complain about how their peers aren’t around. They travel. They collaborate with others across the globe. It undermines the tradition of a community of scholars.

The university was a solution to that group forming problem. If that was it’s core function, and the other stuff – teaching, qualification, collections, libraries, et. al. – were compliments then the end of homework as a solitary activity is the least of the institution’s problems.

ps. I love the link in #26


noen 07.02.08 at 5:31 pm

If this is true, how does humanity do anything new?

Discovery is done through trial and error and inductive reasoning. Riding a bike isn’t that different than walking. You are applying your ability to balance to a new situation. A lot of discoveries are made by applying old tools to new circumstances.

If I merely imitated my Dad’s performance, I could not have made that adjustment.

But we don’t merely imitate, we construct an internal model and we are perfectly capable of adapting learned behaviors to novel situations. I have a mental idea of my apartment that I confirm through my senses. I don’t even need to look for the dish soap, I know exactly where it is. So “get more dish soap” is a trivial problem. I do not know the world and I don’t perceive it directly. All I know are my ideas about the world and I can discuss those ideas just as easily over a telephone or the internet as I can in person. Learning takes place in the realm of ideas. How that happens, solving a hard problem alone or in collaboration with others, doesn’t seem to me to be that important as long as it takes place.


Nick Valvo 07.03.08 at 7:14 pm

I didn’t quite read all the comments so please forgive any redundancy.

I teach English composition, so my perspective might be a little bit different. If I found my students were writing to each other about their writing in some online venue I would be unambiguously thrilled. But here’s a question that I don’t believe any of you had raised. How would the situation change if the students collaborating were not all in the same class or section, if they did not share the same instructor, or even if they did not attend the same university?

Publishing tools like Facebook (and that’s how such things should likely be considered) make it possible for undergraduates to, in effect, maintain their own publications and venues. We may see transnational groups of undergraduates, all of whom are studying, say, biology, renaissance art history or Java programming, collaborating online. And I think this is probably a good thing, an autochthonous development of what is really a very scholarly kind of practice, namely collaborative enquiry.

I would understand if those in the sciences see this differently.


uk student 07.03.08 at 9:33 pm

An interesting read. But the thing is, this has been going on for years. Think back to the times when you got help from parents etc on that important piece of coursework during high school. An issue has been made of this only because it is more public and obvious. Your article didn’t mention whether the piece of work in question was contributing to the students’ grade for the course? I’d imagine not, with a score only out of 10? If it doesn’t count, then it’s a massive over-reaction on the part of the uni. However, if it counts as part of students’ grades, then I can understand their position. The silly students should have made the facebook group private! Doh!

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