When Sharing Goes Bad: Student Cooperation in the Age of DRM

Can you claim that you did your homework if you got help with it? If you help someone else with theirs, is that cheating?

By Michelle Martin
Published September 16, 2009

I've been reading RTH on copyright law. Now, I'm just a little too old to be someone who is immediately concerned with digital rights management (DRM) and restrictions specifically. But the larger picture - the infringement on individual rights to make fair use of goods already purchased - concerns me.

It's an approach to knowledge and information that smacks of bean-counting and it's one we're seeing more and more, if the experience of students is any indication. This may be tangential to the issue of copyright law, but there is a relationship just the same.

It all boils down to ownership - for example, who owns a piece of work that was accomplished through a large collaborative process? Is collaboration something that should be generally encouraged, as a means to improving knowledge, both individual and shared?

Or, can you claim that you did your homework if you got help with it? If you help someone else with theirs, is that cheating?

Back in my day, fogey that I am, it was expected that you brought work home from school, and returned with it completed the next day. If you didn't understand it, then it was also expected that you got help from someone - your parents, your schoolmates, your neighbour, or even the teacher.

Homework was always seen as practice, as part of the learning process. Getting it done, even with help, was a crucial review of the lessons taught that day.

Nowadays, I've both seen and heard about desk work and homework being graded and averaged into a final mark instead of simply being marked for completion. Teachers sometimes even avoid sending much work home because the students might get help with it - then how could they assign it a grade?

Back in the days of dollar-an-hour babysitting wages, the purpose of homework was to practice what had already been taught in order to understand it better.

As the years go by, kids are increasingly at the complete mercy of the competence of the individual teacher, and of the classroom atmosphere at the time the lesson was taught. If they didn't get it first time around, too bad. The corresponding work is graded and averaged in.

When I was a kid and we walked uphill both ways to school, if you were assigned an essay in your senior years, the teacher actually hoped and prayed that you and your classmates sat around after hours and batted around ideas with intense interest. Or even simply with the goal of figuring out what the teacher meant by assigning the topics he or she did in the first place.

Submitting a good copy full of grammar or spelling mistakes would get you chastised roundly: "Didn't you get someone to read this over for you, so you could correct it?"

These days, some high school departments give essays out as in-class assignments from start to finish, from research notes to good copy. You are not allowed to take home any rough notes. This is, in fact, policed- to prevent you from talking it over with someone, or giving it to a friend to proofread.

You'd better hope your keyboarding skills are up to par, because there's a limited time in which to type the final version. On top of everything else, this is quite an infringement on already endangered instructional time.

Lest you think the points I am making are borne of sour grapes, I'll state right here that all of my own kids have been competent students so far. The oldest ones (back when it was still universally allowed) often helped their high school peers out by proofreading their written work and helping them state their arguments more clearly.

They never felt like they were being taken advantage of, because they naturally had a pretty clear sense of what their own intellectual property was- and no, they didn't just give it away.

Fast forward to the postsecondary years. In my time, before we had the internet and when the only computer course I took involved using a mainframe and a communal printer, we would regularly collaborate on assignments in our science course. These assignments, though graded, were not worth very much of our final mark for all that they involved massive amounts of work.

We were never warned against collaborating (of course, if you used someone else's lab data instead of your own, that was actually cheating). Really, if any individual student chose to copy a solution on a an assignment worth two percent of the final mark, instead of just learning how to do it-with or without help- then it was his or her funeral when the time came to write an exam worth forty.

Without collaboration, what could students do in the face of a soporific, tenured science prof whose limited office hours didn't correspond to many of their own schedules? Or a literature prof whose interests were esoteric to the extreme? It never occurred to any of us that trying to muddle through it all together was dishonest.

You may recall the case of the Ryerson student who was accused of cheating for running a Facebook group as a forum for collaborating on assignments. What you may not know about is the outcome.

Although the charges of academic misconduct were dropped, he still received a zero on all the assignments that were discussed on his Facebook group (gee, did they track down everyone else who may have visited the site?) and a DN (disciplinary notice) on his transcripts.

This week I came across the blog of an engineering professor from New Jersey who referred to the Ryerson group as a "really great use of Facebook". It's hard to tell from his picture, but based on his assessment of the situation I'd say the old geezer was probably born around the same time as me.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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