Computer science students should learn to cheat, not be punished for it

This is a well thought-through response to a recent alarmist NYT article about cheating among programming students.

The original NYT article is full of holy pronouncements about the evils of plagiarism, horrified statistics about its extent, and discussions of the arms wars, typically involving sleuthing by markers and evermore ornate technological fixes that are always one step behind the most effective cheats (and one step ahead of the dumber ones). This is a lose-lose system. No one benefits. But that’s not the biggest issue with the article. Nowhere does the NYT article mention that it is largely caused by the fact that we in academia typically tell programming students to behave in ways that no programmer in their right mind would ever behave (disclaimer: the one programming course that I currently teach, very deliberately, does not do that, so I am speaking here as an atypical outlier).

As this article rightly notes, the essence of programming is re-use of code. Although there are certainly egregiously immoral and illegal ways to do that (even open source coders normally need to religiously cite their sources for significant uses of code written by others), applications are built on layer upon layer upon layer of re-used code, common subroutines and algorithms, snippets, chunks, libraries, classes, components, and a thousand different ways to assemble (in some cases literally) the code of others. We could not do programming at all without 99% of the code that does what we want it to do being written by others. Programmers knit such things together, often sharing their discoveries and improvements so that the whole profession benefits and the cycle continues. The solution to most problems is, more often than not, to be found in StackExchange forums, Reddit, or similar sites, or in open source repositories like Github, and it would be an idiotic programmer that chose not to (very critically and very carefully) use snippets provided there. That’s pretty much how programmers learn, a large part of how they solve problems, and certainly how they build stuff. The art of it is in choosing the right snippet, understanding it, fitting it into one’s own code, selecting between alternative solutions and knowing why one is better (in a given context) than another. In many cases, we have memorized ways of doing things so that, even if we don’t literally copy and paste, we repeat patterns (whole lines and blocks) that are often identical to those that we learned from others. It would likely be impossible to even remember where we learned such things, let alone to cite them.  We should not penalize that – we should celebrate it. Sure, if the chunks we use are particulary ingenious, or particularly original, or particularly long, or protected by a licence, we should definitely credit their authors. That’s just common sense and decency, as well as (typically) a legal requirement. But a program made using the code of others is no less plagiarism than Kurt Schwitters was a plagiarist of the myriad found objects that made up his collages, or a house builder is a plagiarist of its bricks.

And, as an aside, please stop calling it ‘Computer Science’. Programming is no more computer science than carpentry is woodworking science. It bugs me that ‘computer science’ is used so often as a drop-in synonym for programming in the popular press, reinforced by an increasing number of academics with science-envy, especially in North America. There are sciences used in computing, and a tiny percentage of those are quite unique to the discipline, but that’s a miniscule percentage of what is taught in universities and colleges, and a vanishingly small percentage of what nearly all programmers actually do. It’s also worth noting that computer science programs are not just about programming: there’s a whole bunch of stuff we teach (and that computing professionals do) about things like databases, networks, hardware, ethics, etc that has nothing whatsoever to do with programming (and little to do with science). Programming, though, especially in its design aspects, is a fundamentally human activity that is creative, situated, and inextricably entangled with its social and organizational context. Apart from in some research labs and esoteric applications, it is normally closer to fine art than it is to science, though it is an incredibly flexible activity that spans a gamut of creative pursuits analogous to a broad range of arts and crafts from poetry to music to interior design to engineering. Perhaps it is most akin to architecture in the ways it can (depending on context) blend art, craft, engineering, and (some) science but it can be analogous to pretty much any creative pursuit (universal machines and all that).

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State of Higher Ed LMS Market for US and Canada: Spring 2017 Edition

Hat-tip to Tim Terry (@tterry) for sharing this one from Phil Hill.

tldr; – Blackboard and its acquisitions continue to shrink (great!), Canvas continues to grow (good), Moodle continues to thrive (very good), partly driven by Blackboard’s hosted version in MoodleRooms (not so good). Of the rest (a tiny fraction of the big three), Desire2Learn is still growing market share and Sakai trundles along as it has for over a decade. Homegrown solutions have dwindled to a neglible fraction of the whole, though it is worth noting that Moodle (especially), Canvas (to an extent), and Sakai are highly customizable as they are open source (or, in Canvas’s case, open core), and that all allow use of plugins of some form or another, so the fact few are running systems built from scratch does not imply that everyone is running baseline systems.

state of the LMS market in US and Canada, 2017

The battle between open and closed source systems looks fairly evenly matched right now, on the surface, but that is largely due to Blackboard’s slowly-decreasing momentum. When you take into account that, up to 10 years ago, it and its acquisitions held a large majority of the market, it looks like open systems are the big winners. However, a note of caution is needed here.  Canvas’s ambivalent approach and an increased move to cloud hosting, usually with proprietary pieces sneaking in through the back door (especially in Blackboard’s MoodleRooms foray), cast a shadow on that. The big commercial players are starting to notice that it only takes a little bit of lock-in to trap people in a system, so they can benefit from the reduced need for development that the use of open source entails for them, while still trapping their users as they have always done with relatively small, closed, euphemistically named ‘value-added’ services that, in the long run, are anything but. Cloud systems only make sense when they can be directly replaced with alternative cloud (or self-hosted) systems, with little or no disruption, lost functionality, or data loss. That largely limits the options to those that use open source and/or exclusively open protocols, or those that are more or less completely ephemeral and that store no significant data. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the direction cloud hosting is taking right now.

I predict that there will be an increasing demand in coming years for migration specialists that are able to negotiate the complex business, legal, social, and technical problems of moving between cloud providers. They will be able to charge through the nose because they will save large fortunes for trapped companies. There are also killings to be made by cloud hosts that can successfully suck everything from other cloud hosts, though buyers should beware that they may just be moving from the frying pan into the fire. Long-time masters of lock-in, like Blackboard and Microsoft, will do everything in their power to prevent migration away from them, shifting formats, obfuscating data, subtly breaking protocols and standards, adding unnecessary but desirable tools, retiring systems that are too easy to back out of, and adjusting their prices to make it just a bit more expensive to leave them than to stay. Such techniques have worked for them for years even before the cloud got to be a big thing, but it is so much easier for them now they have their hands on actual company data. Smart companies will avoid falling prey to them in the first place.

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Universities must do more to tackle use of smart drugs, say experts

Oh good grief.

I wonder why students would be taking such risks? Oh, right…

“Modup, a website selling Modafinil, told the Guardian that during exam time the volume of Modafinil shipped to the UK doubles.”

Funny that, in the whole article, there is no mention of the possibility that universities might be doing something outrageously wrong to their students, something that is easily fixable, something that just might just be the cause of the problem in the first place.

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Learnium is yet another attempt to overlay a cloud-based social medium on institutional learning, in the same family as systems like Edmodo, Wikispaces Classroom, Lore, GoingOn, etc, etc. I deliberately exclude from this list the far more excellent, theoretically grounded, and innovative Curatr, as well as dumb bandwagoners like – of all things – Blackboard (not deserving of a link but you could look up their atrocious social media management tools if you want to see how not to do this).

Learnium has a UK focus and it includes mobile apps as well as institutional integration tools. It looks slick, has a good range of tools, and seems to be gaining a little traction. This is trying to do something a little like what we tried to do with the Landing, but it should not be confused with the Landing in intent or design philosophy, notwithstanding some superficial similarities. Although the Landing is often used for teaching purposes, it deliberately avoids things like institutional roles, and deliberately blurs such distinctions when its users make use of them (eg. when they create course groups). It can be quite confusing for students expecting a guided space and top-down structure, and annoying if you are a teacher trying to control the learning space to behave that way, but that’s simply not how it is designed to work. The Landing is a learning space, where everyone is a teacher, not an institutional teaching space where the role is reserved for a few.

Learnium has a far more institutionally managed, teacher/course-oriented perspective. From what I can tell, it’s basically an LMS, cut down in some places, enhanced in its social aspects. It’s closer to Canvas than Moodle in that regard. It might have some value for teachers that like the social media tools but that dislike the lack of teacher-control, lack of privacy, deeply problematic ethics, and ugly intrusions of things like Facebook, and who do not want the cost or hassle of managing their own environments.  It is probably a more congenial environment for social pedagogies than most institutional LMSs, allowing learning to spread beyond class groups and supporting some kinds of social networking. There is a lot of scope and potential for vertical social networks like this that serve a particular kind of community in a tailored fashion. This is very much not Facebook, and that’s a very good thing.

But Learnium is an answer to the question ‘how can I use social media in my courses?’ rather than ‘how can social media help to change how people learn?’ It is also an answer to the question of ‘how can Learnium make money?’ rather than ‘how can Learnium help its users?’ And, like any cloud-based service of this nature (sadly including Curatr), it is not a safe place to entrust your learning community: things like changes to terms of service, changes to tools, bankcruptcy ,and takeovers are an ever-present threat. With the exception of open systems that allow you to move everything, lock stock and barrel, to somewhere else with no significant loss of data or functionality, an institution (and its students) can never own a cloud-based system like this. It might be a small difference from an end user perspective, at least until it blows up, but it’s all the difference in the world.

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Study reveals scale of antisemitism online (tldr; no it doesn't)

Researchers analyzing millions of posts across an assortment of popular social media assert that 63% of antisemitic posts were to be found on Twitter. The writers suggest:

The larger proportion of such hate speech found on Twitter could be because it’s easier to search for comments than other social sites – as many Facebook pages will not be public – and it’s easy for individuals to open and run multiple accounts.”

Maybe so, but that’s not the whole story. There is no information given about the methodology used for this, but the nature of the social software systems being studied means that any pronouncement over relative percentages of antisemitic content in these different systems must be inherently flawed. The only thing that the researchers could really have been looking at here was not the extent of antisemitism on different social media, but the ease with which they could find it. Twitter discourse is predominantly public and set-based (only partly network-based), so finding stuff is not just easy but a design feature, notwithstanding Twitter’s own restrictions on quantity of data returned.  There is no reliable way to query the entire blogosphere, nor even a significant or representative part of it, so the fact that 16% of antisemitic comments were found on blogs is neither here nor there and, even if it were, there would be no way to reliably gauge the numbers of individuals affected.  Similarly, there is no ethical way to find such things in predominantly closed social networks like Facebook: access rights and the uneven nature of the social graph mean that much must remain hidden from researchers’ eyes (unless they are Facebook themselves). There could well be clusters of millions of anti-Semites that are entirely invisible to them, so the figure of 11% is equally spurious.

The study’s sponsors use the results to say, “We hope this serves as a wake-up call to all internet forums to maintain moral standards, rid themselves of offensive content, and make the digital world a safer place for all.” This really doesn’t follow.

It is horrible and shocking that antisemitism still occurs at all. I don’t know the solution to that, but I am pretty certain that it is not crass censorship. You don’t kill hatred by hiding it: quite the opposite. You kill it by confronting it, with education, with compassion, with reason, with opposing sentiment, by example, and so on. To use a flawed study like this as a means to promote censorship seems at best contrived, at worst a means to frame the problem as an ‘us vs them’ war that exacerbates an already horrendous problem.

I came across a wonderful example of how to deal with hatred online the other day, at philosopher Dave Webster’s ‘Dispirited’ book blog. In response to Dave’s sensitive, open, and spiritual discussion of his own atheism, a person calling themselves Sheila Hale shockingly wrote:

What confused and empty views you have of faith in the One true God. Not surprising you present as a sad and miserable person.

I was stunned to read this, especially knowing Dave (a thoroughly nice fellow). How unkind, how unchristian, how full of hate. It must be so tempting to mute the response, or to respond angrily, or to highlight the hypocrisy of the comment, or at least to throw in a witty riposte from her One true God to tell her he is angry with her now and will smite her mightily. But Dave didn’t do any of that. He left it as it is, to speak for itself, and it makes a more profound and eloquent point than any other response could hope to achieve. By leaving this hate act visible, raw and jarring in a context of gentle and supportive discourse, Dave lets the comment itself do all the heavy lifting, and rises above it by choosing to both show it and ignore it.

Yes, some things need to be censored: I have removed a ton of junk from my blogs over the years, mostly advertising dubious sex sites, Canadian meds vendors, or fake Rolex sellers. Sure, if it offends you, don’t feel bad about getting rid of it.  If it is illegal, report it. If it breaks your terms and conditions, by all means do what you see fit with it. I don’t have a problem with individuals making their own moral or pragmatic choices in their own literal and figurative domains. And I accept that there are some complex issues involved: Trump’s continuous barrage of blatant lies, for instance, seem to benefit from repeated exposure even when self-evidently false. But censorship is not always the right response, and it is often the wrong response. If we are going to change the world for the better, we need to acknowledge the evil in it and, at least sometimes, to face it directly. And we really have to stop using what Richard Feynman calls cargo-cult-science to back up our choices.

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Free download of 'Digital Habitats'!

Wenger, White, & Smith’s excellent “Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities” is now available for free, in major ebook formats!

I really like this book: though it is a bit of a patchwork in places, longer than it needs to be, and heavier on practice than theory, it is an absolute goldmine of ideas for those creating, managing, and nurturing online communities, covering technical, managerial, social, and many other issues in an admirably holistic fashion. Very well written by people that really get it. This is going to be high up among the “highly recommended” readings for my Social Computing course (there are and never will be required readings) because the approach – which gives no special priority to tools, processes, social engagement, management, etc – fits it to a T.

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post-reality fictoid-facts

Satirists are mostly flummoxed by Trump, because there’s no absurdity they can dream up that is more absurd than the evil orange turd itself, and that is not out-trumped by some yet more appalling and improbable excrescence oozing from its tiny bitter orifices. Armando Iannucci does, however, make a pretty good stab at the problem in this letter to Trump. He accurately captures the essence of Trump’s underlying modus operandi thus:

“They used to tease you about your attitude to the truth, didn’t they? All your post-reality fictoid-facts, like how global warming was a myth invented by the Chinese, how you respected all women without exception, except the greedy, grasping, ugly ones who were trying to suck you dry, how Obama wasn’t born in America, and also how you put everyone right when you said he was.

And that rigged election: you had evidence the election was rigged against you and you were going to lose, and then, when you won it fair and square, you had proof you would have won it even more fairly and squarely had it not been rigged against you so you couldn’t win so bigly. And now they say the Russians rigged the election, and you say the election wasn’t rigged, it was never rigged, and you’ve been saying for months: it was never rigged.”

Logic fails in the face of contradiction, and fails badly. If both A and not-A are true, the moon is (logically) made of green cheese. If you can persuade people to believe both the thing and its contradiction, then the consequences are dire. As Iannucci puts it:

You’ve taught people to believe not what is empirically true but what is emotionally true, which is a better truth. You’ve set free the credulity of the people.”

This is how most religions work too, as it happens. 

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Bridge champion who played her cards right (From The Argus)

Sandra LandySad news for the world of bridge, about which I know almost nothing apart from what Sandra Landy, several-times world and European bridge champion, occasionally shared with me, and sad news for me. I learned today that she died last week, at the age of 78.

Though she never persuaded me to take up bridge, Sandra was a great influence on both my computing and my teaching careers. Firstly, she created (though was at the time no longer leading) the innovative and well-respected MScIS from which I graduated in the early 90s at the University of Brighton. On the course, she taught me Cobol, and supervised my project. At the end of the course, it was because of her recommendation and support that I became a principal software technician and, later, academic support manager for the university’s IT department and, some years later (again with her enthusiastic support and encouragement) became a lecturer, leading me fairly directly to my current career. She used to live down the road from me in a huge house in Hove (which was convenient when she wanted me to fix her computers!).

Sandra was an incredibly intelligent woman, a force of nature to be reckoned with whose influence on the teaching of computing at the University of Brighton, and beyond, was vast. Her subject knowledge was immense, her curiosity intense. She had conducted the first ever lecture on the first ever computing degree in the UK (at Brighton) in 1964 when I was just a toddler, and had played a major role in getting it off the ground in the first place. She was an intellectual powerhouse with a strong will, a clarity of vision, and a total lack of fear in critiquing anything and anyone, including herself. In fairness, as a result, she intimidated a lot of staff and students at the university, but she and I always got on famously. We amused and entertained each other. She had a marvellously dry sense of humour and a wonderfully rich, cigarette-sanded voice that could charm the birds off a tree as easily as it could leave strong people quivering like jelly. Suffice to say, she usually got her way, and her way was usually a very good one, but she was as compassionate as she was passionate. She listened as intently as she spoke and, if the idea made sense to her (after she had challenged it, of course!), she would lend it her full and considerable support. Quite a lot of the more disruptive innovations I was able to bring in during my time in a support role at Brighton were only possible because Sandra stood behind me and barged through any objections.  Her indelible stamp on the computing courses at the University of Brighton gave them a very distinctive character, an enviable mix of rigour and humanity, that persisted long after she retired. The world is a poorer place without her. 

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DeepDyve – Your Personal Research Library

‘Like Spotify for academic articles’, the slogan says. It gives access to a claimed 10,000 paywalled academic journals for $40USD/month ($30/month for a year). The site correctly claims that you can therefore get a whole year’s access to all these journals for the cost of about 10 individual articles in an average paywalled journal, so it seems like a pretty good deal for any researcher outside academia needing to access more than a handful of papers in closed journals a year.

I had a quick browse, and here are my initial observations:

  • There’s a fairly decent selection of many of the more significant profiteering journals, albeit some that I read regularly are not there (including, interestingly, some paywalled but not-for-profit publications). It’s worth noting that, unlike Spotify for music or Netflix for movies, it can be a serious problem if a required paper is not available to a researcher. Some is better than none, but I don’t think 10,000 journals is anything like enough to make this truly compelling or disruptive.
  • The access is a bit variable – not all is full-text, and it looks like there are some notable limitations on what you can do with at least some of the papers (limits on pages you can print per month is a warning sign – this is at best a rental model, the equivalent of streaming).
  • The site seems a bit flaky – the search doesn’t work very well, and sometimes fails altogether, and it seems to lose session state very easily – but it’s mostly a modern, easy-to-use system.
  • There are some useful browser add-ins etc that make it easy to hook in things like Scholar.

It’s not up there with a good university library. Not even close. Athabasca University Library, for instance, gives access to and indexes about 65,000 journals, albeit including a number that are open-access already. But AU library also gives access to a host of physical books and journals, and a very large number of online books, loads of conference proceedings, an excellent group of skilled information professionals to provide help with finding what you need, and plenty more.  Our undergraduate students get all of that for 6 months, as well as any textbooks needed for their courses, and their course materials, for a grand total of $180CAD ($30/month), paid as a standard resources fee. We do run this at a substantial loss (costs to us were, according to the last set of figures I saw, over $250/student, mainly thanks to immoral textbook pricing) but, even so, $40USD a month for a fraction of the services seems extremely steep to me. 

It would be unfair, though, to call this pricing predatory: I expect the company has been fleeced by the publishers just like everyone else. DeepDyve is just filling a market niche left by the truly predatory publishers that steal publicly funded research, then hold it to ransom in closed, legislatively locked containers to sell back to those that produced it (and others), lining their filthy pockets with obscenely huge profits all the way down the line. DeepDyve reduces the costs for some people, and that’s OK, but it’s hardly a solution to the bigger problem, and may actually bolster a status quo that is fundamentally corrupt down to its core, because it provides an ongoing revenue stream to publishers that might otherwise be bypassed by ‘grey’ sources (if you want papers from paywalled journals and books, mail the author!) or ‘pirate’ sites like Sci Hub or Academic Torrents. The correct answer to the problem is for all of us to stop publishing in closed, profiteering, exploitative journals, to stop letting them steal from us in the first place. 



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Leonard Cohen Dead at 82 – Rolling Stone

Another sad piece of news in a year of much sad news.

To be fair, it does not come as a great surprise. He had been preparing for this for a long time, approaching death with the same style, creativity, and elegance as he approached his life. Cohen said in a recent interview that he was ready to die and, following much the same theme, in his final letter to Marianne Ihlen as she lay dying earlier this year –  ‘We are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon’. It pleases me greatly that, on his 80th birthday, he followed through on his long-held intention to take up smoking once more.


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