An open education not ready to be open

Reflections on the tensions between open education and traditional schooling


I am a tried-and-true supporter of open coursewares. They enabled the first steps of my becoming a software engineer. So much of my knowledge today is indebted to people who have graciously shared theirs on the internet. Even more of my belief in the possibility of a new path is indebted to this generous ethos of enabling access to worlds you did not previously know.

But anyone that has actually studied with online open courseware knows it is terribly lonely and difficult, even for very motivated learners. When I was studying from Stanford’s online introductory computer science class in Taiwan, I had no access to people that could help me when I got stuck. The only thing that lessened this loneliness was the writing of a girl in San Francisco that had already self-studied through one the classes. When I absolutely needed some hints on how to progress forward, I consulted her blog’s solutions for quick and limited hints. Often, it was for trivial but bottlenecking questions like how to incorporate certain libraries. To me, lifting her solutions wholesale (or “cheating”) had no value. If I didn’t do as much of it as possible myself, the knowledge was not mine.

When I started looking for jobs as a software engineer, I put up my completed assignments as part of my portfolio on Github to demonstrate that I had studied fundamental data structures. After all, I have invested close to 300 hours for the two introductory courses and I wanted to showcase this in lieu of a formal CS education. An added benefit of that was a few people similarly self-studying had now subscribed to the repository. It’s perhaps a falsely romantic sentiment—but it really uplifted me in a small way to know that there are people all over the world wanting to learn more of their own volition; I felt connected to them.

My experience is not a rare one. Many aspects of it, especially the knowledge sharing, are common among people who have self-studied their way to life-changing paths.

This is why I was genuinely surprised when I received an email request from a Stanford CS instructor to remove my solutions from Github. He claimed that the availability of my solutions could seriously jeopardize the academic futures of the current students, as many of them had no self-control over cheating or willfully cheat because they simply did not care about learning the material. It was my responsibility to remove this “temptation” out of their way.

When I asked him if I was violating some actual legal rule of sharing these solutions (perhaps there was an honor code that I was not aware of), he confirmed that I was not. Since I was not in violation of any known rule and I wanted to uphold my principles, I declined his request. At this point, I no longer needed the material for my portfolio but still shared them for other self-learners. Understanding that cheating is a very serious offense for Stanford students, I offered to add some disclaimers/warnings to remind anybody consulting the solutions that Stanford students should not reference these assignments. Unfortunately, this proposal was considered insufficient by him—he deemed that I “could not be reasoned with” and that the availability of my solutions to be against the spirit with which such material are shared.

This was in spite the fact that the FAQ page for this open courseware clearly states that in lieu of faculty support, it hopes that students can self-form communities online to help each other for assignments without solutions and that such “support should be obtainable via a quick web search”.

While I still believed in the soundness of my motivations, his insistence got me to reflect on the unspoken paradoxes between a closed, formal education and its simultaneous attempt to be “open”. For what it’s worth, I think this instructor must care about his students an extraordinary amount to do something like this—they are really very lucky to have him. I also don’t think that his request necessarily represents the official perspective of the school (it may, it may not).

Some things to reflect on, without absolute answers.

1. How does a school reconcile the consequences of making a course open?

When the school shared their courses online, did they not predict that solutions would also be shared? Despite the instructor’s claim that he had emailed the handful of people with posted solutions and they had complied, a quick Google search showed me dozens of other solutions still posted, including solutions from the girl that had first helped me. Why did the school continue to use unmodified assignments for its own closed course?

As generous as it is to post course material, learning on your own could be extremely difficult without a reference to solutions. The articulated hope of self-forming learning communities for online classes is impossible without the allowance of sharing and discussing answers freely. It is not worth much for a school to claim to embrace open education when it cannot fully embrace the consequences of openly shared knowledge.

Coursera, which is different in nature in that students have access to TA’s and also have the potential to be certified, has a clear honor code that forbids the sharing of solutions (even so, this is the internet and a quick search reveals that solutions are everywhere). While I believe that the effectiveness of open coursewares without TA support would greatly decrease if solution sharing is forbidden, this should be spelt out in the guidelines if its is a legitimate concern. Such logistics need to be coordinated more thoroughly to defend against potential paradoxes.

2. Should a school rethink its policy on cheating?

The primary argument that the instructor gave me was that even if a student has “inadvertently” cheated through an initially casual reference, the consequence was large and irrevocable. A student did not simply get a zero, but could be suspended or expelled—forming an indelible mark on the academic record.

It troubles me deeply that a school and its instructor still act more like authoritarian parents even at the university level. What does it say about our education system when young adults could not be trusted to make their own decisions and take advantage of the world-class resources around them? What does it say about our relationship of trust for each other when we do not permit young adults to rebound from casual mistakes? Are we simply ruling them by fear?

3. Should a school reflect upon the nature of its assignments?

Of all the troubling implications, the worst was the symbolic disconnect between completing an assignment and how work is done in the real world. In the working world, knowledge is constantly augmented through open source sharing, consulting of previous experiences, and working collaboratively. This enables us to advance our collective intelligence as a whole. So little of this is evident in how we expect students to exercise their knowledge.

Cheating, in the sense of “copying”, can be simultaneously worthless and worth a lot. Copying without thought means you cannot internalize the knowledge and at some point you will be caught at a dead end. On the other hand, copying in fragments with the thought to emulate and internalize can be a way of improving—when you mimic patterns better than your own.

Should schools give more thought on how to test mastery without forbidding references to other material? There are assignments that are brittle to cheating, and others that can promote referencing and building upon existing knowledge that still require exercising your intellectual originality. Many of the coding bootcamps’ free-form projects for career day are such examples.

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I accept that this is a topic rife with ambiguity and relative ethical grounds. (With the exception of Stanford students who cheat with no contrition, I have limited sympathy for students privileged with world-class resources that intentionally fail to take advantage of them).

In the end, I removed the solutions because I respected the teacher going out of his way to try to construct an “effective” learning environment for his students, even if such construction is a bubble. My initial refusal seemed to seriously pain him, and I do not enjoy emotionally traumatizing someone whose heart is in a good place.

It took me a long time after graduating from an Ivy League school to fully grasp the true value of knowledge without the presence of grades (I had never cheated, but the specter of grades always loomed larger in a school than learning for its own sake). Access to knowledge and the subsequent mastery of it is such a precious and beautiful thing, but it could only be truly appreciated when you are trusted as an individual to utilize it for purposes larger than impressing an artificial system.