Individuating student work in a collective think space

More and more, we can imagine an internet that is used daily by students to harness the powers of  “collective” or distributed intelligence for producing intellectual work of a higher caliber. The idea behind it is to plug oneself into a network of thinkers.  Ideas will be enriched by the dialogue of interweaving minds thinking and co-operating over universally shared academic problems. This process can be found in many peer-to-peer student networks strewn across the internet. Sometimes, the cooperative activity will be limited to the exchange of pre-packaged thought/”intellectual property” (tips, copies of old exams) in which case the project becomes perceived as a free, web 2.0 version of the internet paper mill.

Yet this type of peer-to-peer setup in itself does not tell us whether students are offloading intellectual labor (practiced by the “freeloader” in any student group) or actually assuming even higher cognitive responsibilities that can be associated with dialogic thinking activities (one who includes greater inputs into the ultimate analysis).   Either scenario could be the case since more cooperating inputs or voices in a room could lead to both more or less cognitive activity being performed by any individual thinker. Once again, it becomes helpful to see particular internet activities as a neutral tool that can yield both positive and detrimental pedagogical outcomes, depending on how they are used.

The perceived problem may stem from the fact that these collective student activities are performed away from the educator’s gaze.  These spaces existing outside the institutional sphere create yet another obstacle preventing the educator from assessing the individual’s contribution within the network. Moreover, since educators don’t typically have the time or means to monitor the cognitive progress of its individual students,  schools can only afford to create an even larger rift between the old and the new spaces of learning.

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Clearly, the problem lies more with the limits to academia as an institution as it is a problem with emergent technologies on the internet. Since schools may not know how to interact with spaces and processes that lie beyond the scope of its control, they often address the problem with an inadequate, but easy-to-implement solution: all back-channel communication between students is to be perceived as suspect and subject to disciplinary measures.

So a question for educators and academic administrators: Do you really think that you will gain in the long run by continuing to shove these fecund  and technologically neutral spaces of student activity into the “cheating” box? Will there/should there be an intervention at some point to incent these popular websites to ban academically unpopular practices such as the wholesale transfer and exchange of pre-packaged ideas that don’t inspire cognitive follow up? How does one evolve the university-outside technology relationship to include oversight within these spaces given the economic and resource contraints of overseeing cognitive processes (as opposed to cognitive products)?  I have begun to see some universities, like UNC-Chapel Hill, partner with a start-up to create spaces of intellectual collaboration across departments. This may be the mayor’s equivalent of setting up a space for graffitti offenders to practice their craft within an approved space. The fact that these academically approved spaces haven’t opened up to wider audiences is beyond me.

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