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enough with the walled garden already

I am appalled by the news that a student at Ryerson University in Canada faces expulsion for organizing an online study group (linktribution to Bryan Alexander, here and here; see also the Toronto Star and CityNews for additional coverage). The premise seems to be that students used a Facebook group to post answers to homework assignments that they were instructed to complete independently, although there is some question as to whether the posts contained full answers or simply advice.

The thing that goes against the grain here for me is the message sent by the university, which sounds a lot like “collaboration will get you thrown out of school.” While I understand the value of each student learning the material, I want to argue here for the equally important value of each student learning how to work with others, forming the kind of reciprocal relationships that foster effective collaboration, and understanding first-hand that many minds are more effective than one. Chris Avenir, the student facing expulsion, took the initiative to bring 146 other students together using a freely-available technology to improve everyone’s learning experience—in a model of collaboration that would be very appropriate many fields of work.

Work in many professions is not about getting an assignment, working on it alone, and getting it right. Work is about a group of people facing a problem, using every resource at their disposal, and working together to solve it. If you personally can only do 80% of the job in the working world, that’s great, you’d get a passing grade; but all 100% still needs to get done. Knowing how to bring others in to help—and having a network of people you can draw on—is a very valuable skill for an employee to have.

I did not see the Facebook group, or the homework assignments. I don’t know whether the exchanges were of a collaborative nature or straight-out answer swapping. But if I were part of the investigation, that would be a key question for me. Because higher education should be more than memorization and working alone. Higher education—heck, I’ll go out on a limb here and say all education—should teach people how to collaborate. Initiative and networking in the service of learning should be rewarded, not punished. Today’s students, who will become tomorrow’s colleagues, will only benefit if the culture of education models effective practices of collaboration.

One Comment

  1. Rachel,

    Kudos for your frank comments and your calm disclosure (didn’t see the group, don’t know the assignments). To me the virtual group differs little from a face-to-face one. I doubt Ryerson plans to issue baby monitors to those f2f groups (to make sure no one discusses answers they’re not supposed to).

    One other element, I think, is that students in this sort of institution need a culture in which both collaboration and self-direction can occur. In other words, the norm becomes: you don’t copy answers on tests, your courses encourage collaboration, your courses make explicit sensible guidelines.