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.
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