Over a million people have registered to take the start-up Coursera‘s online courses taught by professors from the likes of Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Michigan, Caltech and the University of Pennsylvania. Free courses taught by faculty from prestigious institutions: People have been saying that Coursera and other online “universities” (Udacity, Khan Academy) are the wave of the future for higher ed, providing access to university courses, to knowledge, to the masses and for free.
But a bit of reality has dimmed things for Coursera. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, students taking the start-up’s courses have discovered dozens of instances of plagiarism.
Peer Grading and Dozens of Accusations of Plagiarism
Coursera courses use peer grading, in which students are asked to read and comment on other students’ work. Said students in online fora for the courses:
“I just graded my second batch of peer essays and was saddened to find one of them was lifted from Wikipedia.”
“This cheating hurts everyone who is trying to take part in this class and learn with integrity.”
University of Michigan professor Eric S. Rabkin, who teaches the “Fantasy and Science Fiction” course in which 39,000 students are enrolled, has had to issue a plea to students. “An accusation of plagiarism is a deeply serious act and should be made only with concrete evidence behind it,” wrote Rabkin in a message posted on Monday.
Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera and a professor at Stanford University, says that the plagiarism issue is under review but that she doesn’t “have a sense of whether it’s more frequent than in regular classroom environments.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that at least one student says that she or he was erroneously accused of plagiarizing and that “professors teaching the courses say they are worried that some students are being overly zealous in hunting for plagiarism.” Koller notes that students who enroll in the courses — for which they do not receive academic credit but a certificate — must “agree to uphold an honor code” and “in the future, assignments will include reminders that all answers must be the students’ original work.” Coursera is considering adding software that can detect plagiarism.
Plagiarism in College Students’ Writing
Having dealt with issue of plagiarism among college students in twenty years of teaching, I was not surprised to hear about the dozens of plagiarism cases reported in Coursera courses and suspect that there may be more. “Patchwork plagiarism,” in which students take a passage from here and another from there and tweak it just a bit is not at all uncommon and just too easy, and too tempting, in an internet era.
The reasons my students have plagiarized are complicated. Of course they are concerned about their grades and too often a student runs out of time and cutting and pasting from websites seems preferable to submitting a late assignment, or no assignment at all. Some students genuinely struggle to write (if English is not their first language, for instance) and, panicking, turn to the cut and paste business.
I now always have students submit assignments that they write, by hand, in class. There is software that enables students to use computers without accessing the internet but we don’t have it at the institution where I teach. I’m curious what students can produce the “old-fashioned” way, writing with pen on paper. Doing so means their essays are not as long as they might be and some students simply have a hard time writing by hand, but I know that the pages they submit are their own.
Recent High-Profile Cases of Plagiarism
Plagiarism has recently made headlines. Writer Fareed Zakaria was suspended from Time magazine and CNN after he was found to have plagiarized a New Yorker article on gun control by historian Jill Lepore. Science writer Jonah Lehrer was forced to resign as a staff writer for The New Yorker, after he was found to have made up quotes by Bob Dylan in his best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works; the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has said that it will recall print copies of the book.
Certainly teachers go to great lengths to enjoin students to submit original work. I’m usually able to detect plagiarism in a student paper as a passage simply does not sound similar to students’ written-by-hand work students. But no human being could read all the writing assignments of the 39,000 students enrolled in Coursera’s “Fantasy and Science Fiction” course; hence the use of peer grading. Since students are not receiving college credits for the course, you could argue that there is not enough motivation for some (for many) to make the effort to produce original work.
Perhaps the plagiarism in Coursera courses points to a larger, yet to be addressed, issue with such Massive Open Online Courses. Is it not possible that some percentage of participants really just want to be able to gain the information from the course, and writing papers is an extra effort that seems too much to do for an uncredited, free course? Many “bricks and mortar” universities have honor codes that students are supposed to agree to, but (let’s be realistic) that does not mean that everyone follows them.
We can bring online education to the masses but still need to figure out how to evaluate the real vs. the fake work produced by students in the virtual classroom.
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