First let me note up front that I know MOOC is a potentially incorrect term and that we are really talking about Coursera courses that are open enrollment and delivered to large numbers of students for free. The press has labeled it a MOOC cheating scandal, so I’m using the term in that context.
Dr Chuck was in town recently and we had an opportunity to talk at length about some of the recent headlines around cheating, especially the recent issue at Coursera.
Reflecting on our discussion the following thoughts have been bouncing around my head.
Future expected value of Coursera Certificates.
Specifically as Coursera becomes a more mainstream way to get educational content there may come a point where actual academic credit was granted to students completing the course. A view that cheating is widespread in fully online programs could be extremely harmful to free online courses. A secondary effect of the anticipated value of the course may be the trigger for the behavior of other students who took it upon themselves to identify the cheating students.
The Solitaire Problem
People cheat at solitaire and single player video games. There are probably a number of reasons people would cheat in these situations, but I expect that some of them are motivated primarily by the desire to finish or complete the game for its own sake. When it comes to reducing and policing online cheating among these students, I anticipate student’s completion pressure will outweigh any social penalty. These cheaters don’t seem as motivated by the external validation or social rewards. However these users can as will be caught by their peers who have a vested interest in the value of the program.
Instruction practice and good course design remain important tools to block both types of cheaters. Courses which encourage collaboration and use peer review, can discourage certain types of cheating such as plagiarism. Courses that have a high status value to students, encourage students to police the class because they don’t want the course to lose value.
Instructure’s Black Eye
Instructure got a bit of a black eye when a software update allowed a large number of students to change grades, resulting in front page headlines in the Salt Lake Tribune. Instructure has been less than forthcoming about the nature of the bug and even suggested that the grade changes may have been inadvertent by the students, not intentional. Given the fact that Canvas is supposed to be a single multi-tenant instance one wonders if this was grade book corruption limited to a single customer or if there may be more widespread problems and security lapses.
Last year Instructure went out of its way to do a public security audit and invited Phil Hill into view the process. I think we’ve now seen that this was more of a marketing stunt than a real commitment to transparency and openness about their security, or a demonstration of a continuous process. Point in time security audits are fairly meaningless if a code base is changing ever week.
Harvard Students Get Busted
There has also been a lot of publicity around a major cheating scandal at Harvard. In reviewing the reports in the media. I can see how the course design, student expectations and even classroom management played a role in the actions by the students. The class seems to have had limited participation requirements and the grade was totally dependent on the final exam. Students were told they didn’t even have to show up for class, as long as they passed the final exam. They were told by peers and the teacher that this class was easy. I don’t think this excuses the behavior of the students. After all these are Harvard students who are supposed to be the best educated, elite of the elite.
Going back to the Coursesa incident it is notable that students in a free program with unknown academic value are willing to out their fellow students, while the students who are getting a Harvard “A” cover it up and actually copy their peers.
The uncertain future value is key here. The students at Coursera are much more heavily invested in the integrity of the experience because it will only have value if the community makes it have value. Harvard students get the benefit of public social currency in the public belief in the quality and integrity of the academic experience at Harvard. The immediate reward from taking and completing a free online class is the knowledge gained and there is a possibility of a future reward if the free online class certificate is seen by others as meaningful. The immediate reward of an “A” in the Harvard class was having an “A” on your transcript and the future reward of a Harvard degree is a known thing. If there are fifty resumes for a single entry level opening and you are interviewing 3 candidates, the person with the Harvard diploma has a decent chance of getting into the top 3 all other things being equal.
A few themes emerge. First is that we can always be wary of the difference between marketing and reality. Marketing would say that all Harvard courses are academically challenging, Instructure is secure, etc. However reality paints a more complex picture. The second is that high SAT scores and admission standards do not alter the fundementals of human behavior. If people think they can get something by cheating, many will, even elite students. Finally we see that great courses can be taught anywhere. Good design and setting expectations for students can deter cheating. Students need to understand that the value of the “A” is only good if it is earned, and if others are getting the “A” without earning it, it is diminishing the value of their own experience.