A visit back to Hampshire

March 10, 2011
by Adam Schwartz (aschwartz)

Hello again, Hampshire Alums.  I thought I’d take an opportunity to throw a question out to the crowd and get some reactions and potentially advice for current Hampshire students.  I had the exceptional opportunity today (because I live so close) to pay a visit to Hampshire and sit in on a class.

In this case, it was a 300 level class on Artificial Intelligence.  Generally, I think the class and approach is right on, but I found one thing about it of particular concern.  The class is structured around two small (4 people each) teams of students who are working (theoretically) together on expanding the research in a couple facets of artificial intelligence.  As I sat in listening, I heard an emerging theme – the focus that Hampshire puts on individuality appeared to be precluding students from actually working together.  As each student gave his update on the project, I realized that none of them (despite being on a team together) appeared to have actually worked together on anything.  Each person, to his capability, did what he could do to improve his own learning, but did little to nothing in collaborating with each other.  So extreme was the result, that on one team, two individuals had coded complete “solutions” without having ever seen each others work.  On the other team, two less skilled members of the team had been excluded from the learning experience almost completely, while the other two made personal (but not collaborative) progress on the project.

Now, I realize that opportunities exist that all the individuals may find their way into which don’t require collaboration, but for many (maybe even most) of us, we’ll be thrust into situation where we must work together.  I, myself, now recall with shame an early experience I had post-graduation with trying to “work together” with another Hampshire student.  Standing where I am now, and watching this unfold for another generation of students, I wonder, what can we as alums do to better prepare students to keep their individuality (I whole-heartedly believe I have not lost mine) and yet be able to work effectively with others?

My short list is:

  1. Plan to work together – at a whiteboard, in a shared space, whatever, to force collaboration as time permits… and sets the expectation that working together is expected.
  2. Write shared plans (what’s the problem, what’s the proposed solution), so that a cohesive vision of what needs needs to be accomplished is known to all and work can be assigned out, so when common time together doesn’t permit, you have something meaningful to work on and aren’t duplicating effort.
  3. Create space to collaborate online  – without a source for the code you’re working on, the documents you are writing, etc., we forget that we’re sharing with others.  (Plus, source code control is just a plain good idea).

I’m somewhat inspired by my experience with a group of NC State students I’m working with.  NC State mandates a Senior Design project which brings groups of students together in a more structured manner and provides a clear opportunity for them to collaborate on a project.  My $0.02 is that while Hampshire would never want to implement what NC State does, there’s something to be learned from what they are doing that could benefit our students as well.


4 Responses to “A visit back to Hampshire”

  1.   lspector Says:

    Thanks for the feedback Adam. Getting the collaborations going is definitely a major challenge, for a couple of reasons including individualistic tendencies and also the diversity of backgrounds within a class. But I agree that it is really important and it’s something that I’m trying to push pretty hard. In the class that you visited I expect that we’ll be in much better shape in the second half of the semester, now that everyone has had some time to acquire the foundational skills and to better define the projects, etc. Your list is good and several elements of the class address those items, e.g. by using time in class (and out of class) for group work, by “mandating” (to the extent possible) project blogging and electronic coordination, by encouraging the use of mailing lists and code sites (e.g. github), etc. But I’ve found that there’s no magic bullet and each situation/group often requires adjustments.

  2.   Adam Schwartz Says:

    Thanks for the response, Lee. I was thinking about it more, and contrasting it further to my experience with NC State and I now wonder if my proposals are naive.

    The possibility exists that it’s not the opportunity for a collaborative experience that’s missing, but a disinterest (either actively or passively) in collaborating. In which case, no amount of structure is going to cause much collaboration. The NC State students seem almost primed to work together on things, while students who attend Hampshire are there for the individualized experience.

    After the Div III’s are over, whether it’s a cool startup or a huge company that we go to, odds are we’ll have to find ways to work with others. Not that it can’t be learned outside Hampshire, but it seems like a key element that’d been great to walk away from college being much stronger at.

  3.   ky10 Says:

    Adam, I wholeheartedly agree with your observations. As a recent grad and someone who actually took the above class twice, I can testify to the existence of this problem. During both times when I took the class, it was almost impossible to get in touch with the other group members. After a few times of getting the run around when trying to contact group members, I eventually just started working individually.

    One suggestion is mandating students to specify what part of the project they will be working on at the end of each class and then having each individual student present what they worked on during the following class meeting(maybe also show some git commits actually proving that code was committed,etc). I believe that will go a long way in making sure each group member is doing some work even more than the usual group progress report because the group report doesn’t actually expose the fact that most of the group members aren’t doing anything. The group report just presents what the group is up to which might just mean, what the most active group members are up to.

    Another suggestion would be to create a variation of what you experienced at NC state and incorporate it into the Div system. Just like the community service requirement whereby students have to do community service and demonstrate that they have performed that requirement for Div 1 and Div 2, there also should be a requirement that students have to show that they worked collaboratively with at least one other individual on a project at Hampshire. Such a drastic measure is really needed because without anything like that, no one at Hampshire has any impetus to work collaboratively, even in classes like Lee’s. Honestly, my experiences with working collaboratively soured me a lot on the idea at Hampshire and Im very sure a lot of other students at Hampshire share this sentiment. We need something that will instill into the incoming class, the ability to successfully work collaboratively right from the start of their time at Hampshire. If we don’t show students how to work collaboratively and make them do it, we’ll keep ending up with the disastrous collaborations that have plagued every Hampshire student when faced with the need to work with another student later on in their life at Hampshire.

  4.   Adam Schwartz Says:

    Hi! Thanks for the comment. I continue to think on this subject and what I can do as an alum to influence the outcome for future students. What Hampshire offers, in my mind, is an unparalleled opportunity to explore an amazing diversity of thought, focusing on what really motivates each of us to maximize the value of our education. And in most ways education is indeed a very individualized experience – even at traditional colleges you succeed or fail pretty much on your own merits. How do we maintain that incredible experiment in education yet reduce the size of the collaboration hurdle on entering the working world?

    Being a scientist at heart, I wonder if the first thing to do would be to validate our hypothesis – that Hampshire students have a gap in ability to collaborate compared to students coming from other institutions. In addition to a relative comparison of capability, we’d need some research to show that the ability to collaborate (however you measure that) is at least correlated to success (again, however you measure that). Lee, know any professors in SS who might be able to guide me a bit? There might be a problem worth solving (and a paper worth publishing) in here!

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