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 — 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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