Things I Know 293 of 365: The glacier of higher education is drifting toward collaborative learning

If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research.

– Wilson Mizner

I’m in the throws of finals at the moment. Today was spent reading the relevant four sources to be synthesized and analyzed in the essay final I’ll be writing tomorrow for one of classes. Contrary to my instincts, it won’t be available for viewing here until after the due date for submission has passed in keeping with the explicit instructions that we are allowed to discuss our ideas for the paper while we are planning and thinking about what we’ll write, but not once we’ve begun writing.

While I understand this guidance as keeping with the College’s policy of preserving “the status of the work as the student’s own genuine intellectual product,” I also wonder what effects such policies have on our abilities to build a fund of knowledge or work collaboratively.

Much of the work I’ve been doing over the course of this semester includes ideas around setting policy at the organizational and systems levels. This work has asked for definition of purpose and principles of design. It has asked for the articulation of beliefs as I would integrate them into organizations and systems under my supervision.

At the same time, the refinement of those principles and beliefs has largely been done individually.

There should be road testing.

Instead of my design principles, I’d love the chance to work within the context of a 70-student course to come to consensus on our design principles. Imagine the process of starting with 70 disperate ideas and the discussion surrounding their integration. Imagine the learning of the experience.

To be clear, this is the faulting of the system, not any individual. Much of the work done within higher education has to do with looking at the writings of those who have come before us and working to invent something just different enough so that we might call it unique. Given the plurality of ideas accessible in a globally networked world, such a process is intensely competitive.

In one of my courses this semester, we were asked to move toward a collaborative process. In teams, we were asked to set a research agenda and share our findings. Though not planned, this led to the sharing of resources across teams to the point that the course’s teaching team created and online space for teams to archive their research. Once allowed, the sharing was contagious. Not only was each piece of work created for that assignment each student’s own genuine intellectual property, it had the added benefit of drawing from the depth of a commons shaped by all the minds in the room.

This is an excellent start.

Still, we can do much more to foster individual thought built through communal knowledge.

The leading example of what is possible exists in Writing History in the Digital Age. Edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, Writing is “a born-digital edited volume, under contract with the University of Michigan Press for the Digital Humanities Series of its digitalculturebooks imprint.”

It signals a shift in how we can better leverage intellectual capital to build polycultural works.

What’s more, the research is coming to support such a shift. If you’ve got the time, look at the work Sarah Thorneycroft is doing to change academic publishing or consider Doug Belshaw’s transparent, conversational and deeply academic work on digital literacies.

While I’m frustrated by the lingering restrictions of classroom 1.0 I’m encountering in graduate school, I’m heartened by these bright spots highlighting ways in which networks can be leveraged to support both individual creation and communal refinement.


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