Mar 02 2015

Cheating or Collaborating? Coding Education Blurs Line for University

A code-sharing website blurs the line between collaboration and cheating.

When does collaborative coding cross the line to cheating?

That's what puzzled officials at the University of Illinois when they discovered a computer science student had posted answers to homework assignments on the content-sharing platform GitHub, Wired reported.

The university posted on GitHub a request to remove the content using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 as its rationale. The posting resulted in a debate among commenters. But the university only withdrew its request after students publicly criticized the move.

"The incident goes a long way towards describing how the software world has changed in recent years," wrote Wired's Robert McMillan.

Rob Rutenbar, the school's computer science (CS) department chair, agreed. He said universities are trying to balance the need for online collaboration with the need to assess each student’s work and abilities.

"This is an issue all CS programs are wrestling with," he told Inside Higher Ed.

Mike Berry, a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, sympathized with his peers at the University of Illinois. He told Wired that it’s a fine line to walk between collaboration and academic integrity. Collaborative coding has become essential, adding new specialized skills to the process of an education in programming, Berry said.

“Years ago we had nothing. So we learned by creating,” he said. “Now you don’t have to learn by creating. You can learn by merge. In some sense, it becomes a little bit more of an engineering exercise.”

However, even with a powerful sharing platform like GitHub, students need to know how to program in order to identify effective code, Berry said. Rutenbar offered the same point to Inside Higher Ed, saying it’s important to learn the basics before moving on to larger group projects.

“The goal is to build first the solid, individual software skills in the early years of the curriculum,” he said. "Then we know that in their later courses — and in their careers — our students will be strong collaborators in team projects."


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