A few ideas I've read and heard lately all converge on the value of learning in collaboration with one's peers:
(1) Our university Teaching and Learning Initiative sponsored a seminar by Michael Coomes on characteristics of the ‘millennial student’. Apparently, the current crop of 19-year-olds is more heavily influenced by their peers than generations that came before; individuality is not necessarily prized.
(I don't know how much stock I put into gross generalizations of people born within the same 20-year span; it seems even more dubious than the zodiac. But then, as a Gen-Xer, of course I would think that. :))
(2) I ran across a paper or two in recent SIGCSE proceedings about the value of pair programming (an ‘extreme programming’ practice) for learning, perhaps for the above reasons. I'll have to look for those papers again. Pair programming sounds like a nightmare to me personally, although I think many other ‘XP’ techniques are fairly sound.
(3) An interesting editorial in today's Times – about the successful Meyerhoff Scholars program at UMBC – emphasizes the importance of peer learning: “The students are encouraged to study in groups and taught to solve complex problems collectively, as teams of scientists do.”
Now, probably all CS programs incorporate some amount of group projects. I certainly did plenty of them in my time. But I think the idea that these sources are suggesting is more structured and pervasive, perhaps starting earlier in the curriculum. In most programs, group work begins only after students have been acquainted with the fundamentals. These ideas are about achieving even the fundamentals through peer learning, and helping students to connect before they get discouraged and move on to ‘easier’ fields.
As an educator, one concern about group work is that it is more difficult for me to judge the contributions of each individual. After all, I have to evaluate students individually. There are a variety of ways around this, including peer reviews and such. And anyway, I feel my primary responsibility should be as a facilitator of effective learning; determining how to dole out the grades is secondary. Right?