MOOC Brigade: Can Online Courses Keep Students from Cheating?

As more colleges debate whether to give students credit for taking massive open online courses, tech companies are looking into using everything from webcam proctors to retina scans to cut down on cheating

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This winter, when Mary Liu sits down to take the final exam in an online course on epidemiology and biostatistics, she’ll do so from the comfort of her own home. She’ll have 24 hours to complete the test, which accounts for 60% of the final grade in the online course, but no one will be peering over her shoulder to make sure she completes the exam on her own without the aid of any of her 50,000 classmates or Wikipedia. There will also be nothing to verify that it is indeed Liu who is taking the test and not, say, a friend or relative. “It’s just sort of on the honor system,” says Liu, a high school teacher in Cambridge, Mass. She is likely very worthy of the trust that an honor system grants, but then again — in the same year that Harvard is grappling with a massive cheating scandal and anyone with a modem can log on to websites like wetakeyourcourse.com — can you ever really be sure?

All this matters because if Liu passes the graduate-level Harvard course she is taking for free through edX — one of the leading providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs — she will be granted 7.5 credit hours, which her school district has agreed to accept as a form of professional development that can help her earn a higher salary. Liu might be among the first students nationwide to turn free online coursework into tangible college credit, but that number may soon grow exponentially.

(MORE: MOOC Brigade: What I Learned from Learning Online)

Last week, the American Council on Education (ACE), a Washington-based higher-education organization that represents college presidents, announced that it would be using a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to begin evaluating a handful of courses from Coursera, a MOOC provider that launched in April, to see if they are worthy of college credit. ACE, which has some 1,800 member schools, will apply the same evaluation method it has used for years to assess other nontraditional training programs, including those offered by the military or in the corporate world. EdX, which was co-founded by MIT and Harvard University in May, is expected to make a similar agreement with ACE soon, and on Nov. 18 it announced partnerships with two community colleges that will blend edX classes into their existing curriculum.

But while the possibility of using these free or inexpensive classes to help get a college degree is great news for cash-strapped students, MOOCs present a challenge for higher-education providers. “We need to be sure that the student who took the course is indeed who they say they are — that they did all the work,” said edX president Anant Agarwal. “That’s a real problem for MOOCs.”

From the beginning, MOOC providers have struggled with the issue of cheating. In August, several professors teaching Coursera courses complained of various forms of cheating in their classes. Some students had plagiarized essays, some had illicitly collaborated on exams, some had posted solutions to test questions online or e-mailed answers to classmates. In response, Coursera, which has nearly three dozen major university partners, instituted an honor code; every time students submit coursework, they have to check a box that says, “In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.” The company is also working on integrating antiplagiarism software. “We saw that we needed to do a better job of communicating to students what we consider acceptable academic standards,” said Andrew Ng, a Stanford professor and one of Coursera’s co-founders. “But I don’t know if the incidences of cheating and plagiarism are higher or lower in our online courses as compared to a regular on-campus class, where we all know cheating occurs as well.”

(MORE: MOOC Brigade: Free Online Classes, Speeded Up a Notch)

Charles Severance, a professor at the University of Michigan who teaches an Internet History, Technology and Security course with Coursera, was curious about how many students were cheating in the free online class. To figure this out, he created an exam that had many different answer keys and some 60,000 distinct ways to earn a perfect score. Because the answer keys were unique, each of them could be tracked separately over the two-week exam period. He tracked the 6,000 students who took the test (of the 48,000 enrolled in the course) to see if they would share answers. Of those 6,000 students, Severance’s analysis concluded it was very likely that 20 had cheated; additional sleuthing led him to determine that the cheating had been pretty low tech. Ten students appeared to have collaborated on the exam using an online chat program, while 10 others appeared to have shared answers via e-mail. But he took the small number of cheaters as a good sign. “That’s surprisingly low if you think about it,” Severance said. “The techniques — e-mailing the answer key or collectively completing the exam in a chat room — literally anyone could think of that. It’s not hard at all,” he said. “And there’s nothing, technically, that we could do to stop them from doing it.”

But if a small number of students were willing to cheat in a course that only offered a certificate — rather than college credit — upon completion, what will happen when there’s much more at stake? Awarding credit, Severance said, “will increase the motivation for engaging in cheating.”

More cheating means MOOCs will have to develop new tricks to verify identity and tamp down on plagiarism and illicit collaboration. Both edX and Udacity, a rival MOOC provider that was founded by former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun in January, have partnered with Pearson to offer proctored final exams. But although Pearson has more than 450 test centers in 110 countries, making students in an online class, many of whom live in rural areas, go to a testing center for the final exam is an old-school solution.

(MORE: Can an Online Degree Really Help You Get a Job?)

Some higher-tech options on the table include a system of remote proctoring, currently under development at Coursera, in which students place their passport or other identification card in front of their webcam and then begin taking the test while a human proctor somewhere in the world observes them. This wouldn’t stop all cheating — what’s to stop a friend from sitting outside the camera’s field of vision and mouthing answers to the test taker? — but remote proctoring could act as a deterrent. The Georgia Institute of Technology, which received a Gates Foundation grant to develop three introductory-level MOOCs in English composition, psychology and physics, is considering incorporating high-tech authentication processes for these courses, including retina scans and facial-recognition software.

But cracking down on would-be cheaters will not only cost money, it could also restrict the original intent of MOOCs, which was to provide educational opportunities to all, just for the sake of learning. “It’s not necessarily ideal,” said Coursera’s Ng. “But the world seems to be moving toward test-based granting of credit.”

Severance agrees. He’s worried that designing courses with cheating in mind will cause MOOCs to lose too much of their openness. “We can’t get too crazy about cheating,” he said. “We have to accept the fact that we can’t make this thing airtight, and the more we try to make it airtight, the worse it becomes as an educational experience. Cheating is not something you can eliminate.”

MORE: Is Online Teacher Training Good for Public Education?

18 comments
WesJones
WesJones

Of course there will be cheating.  Should be the parents job to prevent that.  But then...parents are MIA most of the time in the home. 

zqqz
zqqz

This conversation should be about learning and not cheating. I have taken a few courses online and many are far better than any of the boring traditional classroom courses I took in my undergraduate and graduate level education. Most of those were preoccupied with testing students and implementing the bell curve, not ensuring that students really learn and enjoy the process. Many were cheating in all sorts of ways. So don't talk to me about cheating online as if it can't or doesn't occur with tremendous frequency on campus.

In uni days, half the time I would be daydreaming in class and doing homework was a pain. On my own now, picking the areas I am interested in, I can't get enough time to do all the online courses I am interested in. I diligently do the homework and exams and try my best not to even use web resources. I want to get 100% on everything as an indicator that I have learned all the concepts, not so I can tell others how well I did or gain other advantage which is the culture of on campus learning.

Do we fret about opening a shopping center because there might be a shoplifter coming? Or an online retailer because there might be a hacker or identify thief about? No. Same thing here. The benefit far outweighs the risk. I would also be willing to pay a bit for these courses (should be free for developing countries though). 

The way you stop cheating is not through involved schemes and processes that hurt people like me that need time flexibility, but by sending the message out that there are cheaters out there that have not learned the material, either in traditional or online settings, and the onus is on the employers to properly test and weed these people out. It will be very easy to spot a software engineer that doesn't know his stuff through programming exercises and interview questions. Then the cheating problem should be solved. On the liberal arts side it is more difficult but nevertheless, this should be more about communication and reminding people they are simply hurting their own future chances in career and life. 

JimmyCook
JimmyCook

When students cheat, they are only deceiving themselves. Don't worry, they will regret that once they enter the job market without the sufficient knowledge they need. http://herguanuni.blogspot.com/

allenwoll
allenwoll

.

The solution is an Automated Tutor which knows the student so intimately that cheating is impossible. . What is more, in that situation, examination is UN-necessary : The tutor ALREADY knows what the student does and does NOT know and anyway is fully occupied with remediating the latter. 

Get OUT of the BOX, folks  ! ! ! 

SanMann
SanMann

The real cheating to worry about right now is all the people who are being cheated of the opportunity for higher education due to access barriers. These online MOOCs could be a way around the logjam, allowing more people affordable opportunities to improve themselves and make their careers more resilient against downsizing and unemployment.

MOOC is all about access, and removing this important barrier will help to create a better and healthier society. Gone will be the days when anxious applicants would have to make videos of themselves juggling plates, just to impress some college assessment officer who gets to decide who lives and who dies - ie. who gets accepted and who gets rejected.

Instead of educational resources being hoarded and kept exclusive, let them be proliferated via the internet, so that all can partake in education. Then accreditation and ranking can be done as a separate process, through other means and methods, so that relative ability and competence can be assessed in to the satisfaction of those who would be consumers and customers for those skillsets.

Decouple accreditation from education, so that both can be improved separately.

MathisFun
MathisFun like.author.displayName 1 Like

There are lock-down browser applications for test taking such as Respondus.  If that is used in conjunction with in-person testing at local libraries, publisher locations such as the ones provided by Pearson, community colleges and universities, we could go a long way towards putting a crimp in cheating.  As a college professor and one who has taken more tests that I care to remember, I want someone who receives college credit for an online course to have actually learned the material.  If the credits come with an eventual diploma, and the student receiving it has gamed the system to get there, it reflects on the college awarding the diploma and not in a favorable light.  

takeitforyou
takeitforyou

Cheating is rampant. People pay, literally, thousands of dollars to have others take exams. I've taken the GMAT and the LSAT dozens of times. I've also written theses and dissertations in a number of fields. Online classes? I'm doing 5 this semester. The ability to spoof ISPs makes online class taking very simple. Discussion boards are also easy to fake. In the last decade I’ve written about 2,300 papers and more than 50 theses and dissertations. I won’t be reading your responses so please post as many self-righteous replies as you wish. This article does not even touch the surface of what is going on in education today.

jtsonberg
jtsonberg like.author.displayName 1 Like

"making students in an online class, many of whom live in rural areas, go to a testing center for the final exam is an old-school solution" -- how rural? Your local library can proctor an exam in person. 

Amanda14
Amanda14

@jtsonberg Some rural areas like mine, would have to drive 65 miles to get to a library.  All little towns don't have a library.

stf
stf like.author.displayName 1 Like

How is this a problem?  I took all of my licensing exams for NASD and SEC required designations at testing centers THAT ALREADY EXIST.  You have to provide valid state issued picture ID or various other ID that cannot be faked and you are monitored by camera and you cannot cheat.   I mean, seriously, thousands of people use them every year and I keep hearing this over and over.  This "problem" has already been solved.  Move on already.

markandster
markandster

I've thought about this for a while.  I don't think timeframes would help much - people will just index their resources better so they're more quickly searchable.  

The best solution I could come up with is to turn portions of libraries into testing centers.  Some libraries already act as testing centers with librarians serving as proctors.  With the influx of e-books, it is only a matter of time before libraries go the way of Tower Records, Blockbuster, and, well, GameStop will probably be gone as downloading games catches on - it is now possible on the three main consoles (Wii U replacing Wii), handhelds and PCs.  Rather than closing our libraries when they become largely irrelevant, playing the role of testing sites will give them a purpose well into this new century.

gregjumps
gregjumps

What *is* cheating exactly? Is it *cheating* to use every available resource that you have available? I would say no. Because in the real world of work, you are expected to not only know how to do your job, but are expected to be able to find information when you have exhausted your own knowledge, it's not a "closed book" test.

I would much rather hire someone who has the ability to find information and apply it to the current situation, than someone who can recite material out of their textbook, because that is all most school is, memorize and regurgitate the information. 

Is it cheating for me to ask my colleague the next steps in what I am doing, or to help me with something I cannot figure out? Not at all, it is effective use of the resources I have available. It doesn't make me any less smart, or any less able, it shows that I know where to ask for help.

In my own education, I am in a math class that I have taken 3 times previously. I get to the same point each time, and get to where I am no longer able to do the work. Part of this is most likely that it has absolutely no value to me in my daily life, part of it, is that I just seem incapable of retaining the information. I know it, and I know that if I ever need to know that information, there are plenty of resources available to me, for instance, if I needed a formula to do x, I could look that formula up on google or bing or yahoo. If  I needed to actually do the math, I could look up the steps to solve a similar problem on the internet or in a *gasp* math book, and then apply that to the problem.

MathisFun
MathisFun like.author.displayName 1 Like

@gregjumps I agree that knowing how to find the information and understanding what resources are available is a good thing.  However, there are some things you just need to know without having to look them up or ask someone else about.  If you are in the emergency room bleeding out, you need someone who knows what to do NOW, not someone who only knows where to "look it up".  Now for the math class you are taking for the 3rd time.  As a math teacher my first question is...what are you having trouble with?  How can I help?  You say you get to the same point each time and flame out.  Could it be semester burnout?  It happens to everyone...that I don't want to do this anymore, can't get up and get to class any more feeling that can sabotage an otherwise successful semester.  You have to fight back.  Have you asked your instructor for help?  Sometimes it is just a matter of asking the right questions...explaining to the instructor your understanding so that if you have veered off the right path, they can steer you back with a more detailed explanation.  Many publishing companies, yours included maybe, have online tutoring help.  Have you tried that?  Does your school have a mathematics center that offers tutoring free to students?  These are resources as well and should be utilized when necessary. 

Mithrandirself
Mithrandirself

Minimize Online Cheating:

1.  Require a smaller time frame to complete a test.  All online class participants must complete that test within that timeframe (2-3 hours for example, instead of the 24 hours that the article states they have)  This limits the amount of time someone would have to get the cheating done.

2.  Require users register a single computer as their machine of choice for the course (log ip, machine name, user information associated with that machine).  This would deter students from having someone else take their test (would dis-allow students from having someone else log in as them, as their IP and machine name would be different)

3.  Create a randomized test.  If a test was previously 20 questions, make variations of those questions/problems, and randomize who gets what question.  This would deter copy/pasting answers to problems as they would be different problems.  In conjunction with the time restriction it would be less likely cheaters could easily collaborate.

DoodleBug
DoodleBug

@Mithrandirself - I agree with logging the IP address of the student and keeping it logged. I went to school online and my goal was to not only learn but ensure what I had taught myself was valid. But I must say, I have worked with many that have impressive degrees, however they seem to fall short with any real knowledge about their field and worse, they lack the knowledge of simple technology to be more effective and efficient in their job.

EricScottSembrat
EricScottSembrat

A major issue with the methods being discussed in this article is that they are simply traditional anti-plagiarism methods transferred to a new medium or technology. Each of them, while sounding technologically savvy, are also fairly accident-prone and largely 'security theater' - they only catch the laziest of cheaters. 

Instead, anti-plagiarism methods should be developed to be easy-to-use, require no changes by the student, and be extendible. Essentially, a new method should grasp the Web 2.0 philosophy of Big Data: using the data you already have available on users to intelligently profile and categorize learners' submissions. You won't get this from retina scanning, facial recognition (which as of right now is easily fooled on Android's OS), and webcam monitoring. Another glaring issue with the instructional medium in this article is that the introductory story commits a cardinal sin: the administered exam to students in an online environment is no different than a traditional face-to-face exam. Rather than adjusting the exam to work with the technology and medium, the instructor lazily just copied and pasted the exam to an online environment where the rules of engagement and features available wildly differ from a classroom environment. It's not so much an examination of higher-level thinking and concept mastery and more of a game of memorization, which is largely useless in many areas of higher education. Anti-plagiarism software should be thinking smart and Big Data: online learning and Web-based learning environments are not going to be getting any dumber any time soon.

GaysWithFaith
GaysWithFaith

Technology gave us online classes, it can also make them 'secure'. All it's going to take to figure this thing out is a little ingenuity.  Have you ever seen the movie "Demolition Man"? In the future world classes are all online and students are all sitting in front of their computers and they are all using webcams.  But being on a computer with the internet means Google is at the student's disposal.  It sounds like our education system needs an overhaul because it's clearly broken.  What we should be doing is phasing out books and getting all these kids tablet computers so they don't have to lug those heavy things around, but the text book companies that publish these books are going to want their money and will likely lobby in Congress to make sure no such thing happens.  Another problem with our schools are the unions that make sure things stay the way they are.  Bad teachers can keep teaching  and keep making money so long as they have tenure, when they should really be held accountable and should be on the front lines making positive changes in our schools happen.  One last problem that should be obvious by now, rich neighborhoods have rich schools, and poor neighborhoods have poor schools because their funding is based on property tax.  So can we make online classes more secure and free from cheating?  Sure, but the problem is systemic and until we can get the knots out of the system, we're going to keep running into problems.

MathisFun
MathisFun like.author.displayName 1 Like

@ChurchOfTheGays Publishers are offering eBooks.  But they need to make some money from them, they still have to pay their authors...or they won't have books at all.  


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