Students lobby for changes to computer science honor policies

A group of students are lobbying Mason to make changes to the Computer Science department’s honor policy, which they see as inhibiting teamwork and collaboration.

“The bar is too low for professors in the Computer Science department in the Volgenau School of Engineering to hand out honor code violations to students, particularly in the introductory level classes,” read a description of a petition to the Volgenau School, which has 477 signatures as of April 24.

According to freshman and petition organizer, Jessica Miers, the honor policy punishes students too easily in cases where they received help from other students or outside resources.

“A disturbing number of students and specifically, CS and Applied CS majors, each year are slammed with honor code violations — warranted or not — and forced to fall behind in their major,” read the petition.

According to Miers, most of these issues occur in CS 112, an introductory class to computer programming.

“This isn’t about making it easier for students to cheat, it’s about designing a program that mocks industry standard,” Miers said. “Industry requires collaboration, especially among software engineers. Furthermore, think of the difficulty that comes with trying to do college homework assignments — not even programming but in general — to have to rely on solely office hours, or lecture notes. No Internet access and no peer communication. This stifles the student’s ability to go out and learn more.”

While Miers was taking CS 112 in the fall of 2013, the class included a program that could calculate the circumference of a circle by entering in its radius. Another project required students to build a digital library where users could check out or return books.

All of these projects require code, or programmed instructions for how these different tools operate. In computer programs, there are rules for how code can be written, similar to grammar in a written language.

According to the Computer Science Honor Code Policies, students may seek assistance “in determining the syntactic correctness of a particular programming language statement or construct.” They may also “seek an explanation of a particular syntactic error.”

Students are prohibited from seeking assistance “in designing the data structure used in your solution to a problem.”

Neither the administrators nor the students organizing the petition know the exact number of students who have received honor violations in CS 112.

Administrators argue that the honor policy is used to ensure that students learn the material necessary to excel in collaborative environments.

“From the instructor’s viewpoint, in order for the student to succeed in the early classes, we want to be sure that the students can solve the problems on their own,” said Pearl Wang, associate chair of the Computer Science department. “The restriction is on graded assignments.”

“The industry is collaborative by nature,” said Jeffrey Cohen, another student supportive of the petition. “You see all these different things, and Mason is not fostering the idea of collaboration with people to make a greater product.”

Miers said that she is aware of many instances where students receive violations for working with other students they don’t even know.

“The overall point is that these projects were very easy throughout the year and so easy to a point where it didn’t take many creative algorithms to solve the problems at hand which is why so many students had similar code for the projects,” Miers said. “Why don’t I code under a rock, and pray to god I don’t get a violation with a student I don’t even know?”

According to Wang, collaboration is encouraged in higher-level computer science courses.

“Student learning is the number one thing,” Wang said. “Collaboration is permitted in a lot of our classes…there are lots of opportunities.”

Many students have weighed into the debate on the petition’s website. About 90 comments have been posted over the past month, most of which express frustrations with the current honor policy.

“This class is extremely unfair for all the students that take it,” Isaiah West wrote on the petition. “There is a huge discrepancy amongst the students within this class. Those who haven’t been exposed to this subject need help but have nowhere to turn for help. It is an honor code violation for just about every thing possible.”

The issue has also sparked strong debate on Mason’s subreddit, where several students lamented the kind of environment that stemmed from the honor policy and others said that those complaints are overstated.

“That petition is a gross overstatement of the facts from my experience,” one user wrote. “You cannot pass other people’s work off as your own. Not in school and certainly not in your career.

If you did this for an employer, you’d be opening them up to some major liability, and if you were found out you’d be canned in a heartbeat.”

Wang has agreed to look at any proposed changes to the honor policy submitted by Miers or other students.

“We are always receptive to feedback that we get,” Wang said. “We have a student advisory board of computer science students who give feedback every year. Any information like that I will share for our faculty.”

According to Wang, the honor policy is the product of input from computer science professors. As the semester is finishing up, Wang says there will not be an opportunity for faculty to look at the policy this semester.

“There’s no opportunity to look into this until the fall semester,” Wang said. “That is part of our regular review process.”

“If the faculty chooses to ignore change, we will bring our case further to David Wu and President Cabrera,” Miers said.