An Open Education Not Ready to Be Open

I am a tried-and-true supporter of open coursewares. They enabled the first steps of my becoming a software engineer. So much of my knowledge today is indebted to people who have graciously shared theirs on the internet and a generous ethos of enabling access to worlds you did not previously know.

But anyone that has actually studied with online open courseware knows it is terribly lonely and difficult, even for very motivated learners. When I was studying from Stanford's online introductory computer science class in Taiwan, the only thing that alleviated the lack of help resources was the blog of a girl who had also completed one of the classes on her own. When I absolutely needed some hints on how to progress forward, I consulted her blog's solutions for quick and limited hints. To me, lifting her solutions wholesale (or "cheating") had no value. If I didn't do as much of it as possible myself, the knowledge was not mine.

When I started looking for jobs as a software engineer, I put up completed assignments as part of my portfolio on Github to demonstrate my knowledge. An added benefit of that was other self-learners began to reference the repository. It uplifted me to know that there are people all over the world wanting to learn more of their own volition; I felt connected to them after my own journey.

My experience is not a rare one. Many aspects of it, especially the knowledge sharing, are common among people who have self-studied their way to life-changing paths.

This is why I was genuinely surprised when I received an email request from a Stanford CS instructor to remove my solutions from Github, claiming that availability of my solutions could seriously jeopardize the academic futures of the current students. Many of them had no self-control over cheating or willfully cheat because they simply did not care. It was my responsibility to remove this "temptation" out of their way.

After confirming with him that my sharing of solutions was not in violation of any rules, I declined his request to uphold my principles. Instead, I offered to add some disclaimers to warn Stanford students against referencing the assignments. Unfortunately, this proposal was considered insufficient by him -- he deemed that I "could not be reasoned with" and that the availability of my solutions to be against the spirit with which such material are shared.

This was in spite the fact that the FAQ for this open courseware clearly states that it hopes students can self-form communities online to help each other for assignments without solutions and that such "support should be obtainable via a quick web search".

While I still believed in the soundness of my motivations, his insistence got me to reflect on the unspoken paradoxes between a closed, formal education and its simultaneous attempt to be "open."

Some things to reflect on, without absolute answers:

1. How does a school reconcile the consequences of making a course open?
When the school shared their courses online, did they not predict that solutions would also be shared? Despite the instructor's claim that he had emailed the handful of people with posted solutions and they had complied, a quick Google search revealed dozens of other solutions still posted. Why did the school continue to use unmodified assignments for its own closed course?

As generous as it is to post course material, learning on your own could be extremely difficult without a reference to solutions. The articulated hope of self-forming learning communities for online classes is impossible without the allowance of sharing and discussing answers freely. It is not worth much for a school to claim to embrace open education when it cannot fully embrace the consequences of openly shared knowledge.

While I believe that the effectiveness of open coursewares without TA support would greatly decrease if solution sharing is forbidden, this should be spelt out in the guidelines if its is a legitimate concern.

2. Should a school rethink its policy on cheating?
The primary argument that the instructor gave me was that even if a student has "inadvertently" cheated through an initially casual reference, the consequence was large and irrevocable -- forming an indelible mark on the academic record.

It troubles me deeply that a school and its instructor still act more like authoritarian parents even at the university level. What does it say about our education system when young adults could not be trusted to make their own decisions and take advantage of the world-class resources around them, or to rebound from a real inadvertent mistake?

3. Should a school reflect on the nature of its assignments?
Of all the troubling implications, the worst was the disconnect between completing an assignment and how work is done in the real world. In the working world, knowledge is constantly augmented through open source sharing, consulting of previous experiences, and working collaboratively. This enables us to advance our collective intelligence as a whole. So little of this is evident in how we expect students to exercise their knowledge.


In the end, I removed the solutions, because I respected the teacher going out of his way to try to construct an "effective" learning environment for his students, even if that is a bubble. My initial refusal seemed to seriously pain him, and I do not enjoy emotionally traumatizing someone whose heart is in a good place.

It took me a long time after graduating from an Ivy League school to fully grasp the true value of knowledge without the presence of grades (I had never cheated, but the specter of grades always loomed larger in a school than learning for its own sake). Access to knowledge and the subsequent mastery of it is such a precious and beautiful thing, but it could only be truly appreciated when you are trusted as an individual to utilize it for purposes larger than impressing an artificial system.

(A longer form of this also appears in Medium).