Since its launch in fall 2011, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider Coursera has been turning heads and shaking up academia. The for-profit company has partnered with 13 universities and, even though the classes aren’t for credit, over 1 million people from around the world have enrolled in Coursera’s classes.
Accusations of rampant plagiarism by Coursera students have emerged recently. Some classes were so rife with alleged incidences of plagiarism that professors have been forced to plead with their students to stop plagiarizing, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. One Coursera student, Laura K. Gibbs, posted on her blog that she thinks part of the problem is the peer grading process.
Gibbs, a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma, writes that she received an essay that was a clear example of, what she termed, “patchwork plagiarism” where a student “mechanically and mindlessly transform[s] the text,” by doing minor rewrites, to defeat plagiarism detection software. She also stated that Coursera currently doesn’t have a comprehensive system in place designed to address issues of cut-and-paste or patchwork plagiarism, and that students who suspect plagiarism are recommending the usage of for-profit plagiarism detection software, despite not having clearance from their fellow students to add writing to a commercial database.
Additionally, Gibbs writes that Coursera’s discussion boards have been filled with debates between students about whether plagiarism should be taken seriously in a not-for-credit course. However, the strongest allegation that Gibbs makes is that Severance,a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, ” urged his students to review the essay completely, in addition to identifying the plagiarism problem.”
The plagiarism allegations follow news that Coursera, and other MOOC providers like Edx, have been seeing massive drop-out rates to go along with their massive enrollment. The New York Times reported that of the 154,763 students who registered for MITx’s circuits and electronics course only 7,157, or 4.6%, passed and less than 50% of registered students made it to the first problem set.
UC Berkley Professor David Patterson also experienced massive drop-out from his massive class. Patterson described his experience teaching a MOOC at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in May, saying that only 7% of the 50,000 students who enrolled in his Coursera-distributed software engineering class passed.
Patterson’s concerns weren’t just limited to the low completion rates. Even after he designed auto-grading software and a virtual computer for difficult student assignments Patterson characterized MOOC as “a cheating rich environment.”
A new joint venture seeks to reduce the plagiarism and high drop-out rates by reworking MOOCs and removing professors. The New York Times reports that the project, dubbed “Mechanical MOOC,” is attempting to integrate pre-existing content from MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, with feedback exercises and quizzes from Codecademy, and study groups organized by OpenStudy to deliver an introduction to the programming language Python. The effort will be coordinated through an e-mail list operated by Peer 2 Peer University.
The various organizations involved hope thatby pooling their resources, they’ll be able to deliver a learning experience comparable to Coursera, Udacity, or edX at a fraction of the development cost. One of the ways that Mechanical MOOC hopes to reduce drop-out rates is by allowing students to repeat modules when needed and work at their own pace. Unlike Coursera, edX, and Udacity, Mechanical MOOC won’t be offering certificates of completion instead students will get a badge from Codecademy.
Follow Alex Wukman on Twitter@AlexWukmanCMN