Important-and familiar-questions about the quality of online courses once again emerged this week in two stories reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:
- the revelation of significant amounts of plagiarism in non-credit courses offered by Coursera
- Coursera competitor Udacity’s decision to cancel a math course in which 20,000 students were enrolled, due to concerns about the quality of the course materials and recorded lectures.
These two stories indicate two similar concerns about online educational offerings, especially in the form of massive open online courses (MOOC): the difficulty of ensuring the quality and honesty of student work, and the difficulty of creating high-quality materials that will translate into such a large instructional format. They also demonstrate that positive steps are being made to ensure that online instruction develops into a truly effective form of higher education.
Coursera’s problem is one with which many professors are already familiar: plagiarism and cheating. Whether or not these practices, which are violations of academic conduct, are more prevalent now in an era of degree pursuit based on the pressures of economic necessity is difficult to gage, but one thing is certainly clear: the MOOC format makes it impossible for one professor to grade all students papers, because there are literally thousands of students enrolled in these courses. That means that MOOCs often rely on peer grading, in which students exchange work and assess its quality.
This seems to be the root of the problem in the incidents of plagiarism that have plagued Coursera. Professors have even written impassioned letters to their students about, begging them to stop plagiarizing and adhere to academic conduct rules. In a peer-grading situation, many students will assume that it is easier to slip a plagiarized essay by another student rather than a professor. Sharp-eyed students have reported incidents of plagiarism that they have uncovered, but how many were not discovered?
Also, one of the benefits of going to college is the opportunity to learn from experts and interact more directly with faculty. Professors have a breadth and depth of knowledge that we draw upon when we comment on student papers. For example, when I grade essays, I try to make connections between what they write and other areas of knowledge they can pursue in order to fulfill the larger course goals. In peer grading, the possibility that a student will not understand the larger learning objectives – or the subject of the assignment-is very real. They can evaluate papers incorrectly. In other words, there’s a reason I’m the professor and they are the students.
This view was also expressed by Coursera student Steven D. Krause, who is also professor at Eastern Michigan University. He told The Chronicle of Higher Education that “he doubted that peer grading could ever work without instructors’ looking at all assignments.” He said,
“Usually there’s some sort of norming by the instructors. The idea that this (peer grading) could scale as a broad substitute for higher education is, I think, ridiculous. Content scales really well-you can put all kinds of stuff out on a Web site, and millions of people can look at it. But instruction does not scale, at least to those kinds of numbers.”
By contrast, Udacity, a start-up company offering free online courses, faced a problem on the opposite end of the spectrum from concerns about the quality of student work: the quality of its own offerings. The canceled course, “Logic and Discrete Mathematics,” was not up to the standards they wish to maintain. Sebastian Thrun, Udacity founder, told The Chronicle that, “We recorded the entire class and edited most of it, but in our internal tests it didn’t meet our quality bar. We have an enormous respect for our students’ time and don’t want to release anything that wouldn’t meet our bar.”
The saga of this course has been going on since June, when it was first scheduled to run. After several delays, the company canceled the course entirely. Associate Professor Jonathan D. Farley of the University of Maine at Orono reportedly spend nearly 50 hours recording the lectures, and Udacity made clear that the reasons the course was pulled have nothing to do with the quality of Dr. Farley’s material. Instead, they explained that the problems were related instead to technical issues in the format and the need to devise instructional techniques appropriate to the format and the large number of students.
Kudos to Coursera and Udacity
There are many concerns about how effective MOOCs will be in teaching students, in their usefulness as far as degree completion and in the efficacy of their business models (See Jeff Selingo’s thoughtful discussion of these in The Chronicle of Higher Education) But these two stories from Coursera and Udacity should provide even cynics with some hope: they indicate that the powers that be are as deeply concerned about quality as educators and students-so much so that they willingly went public with some fairly significant problems that could have tarnished the reputation of all online learning.
Though Coursera’s decision yesterday to add honor code acknowledgements that students must submit along with peer-graded assignments may not deter some of the plagiarism, these problems are proverbial learning experiences. These two temporary failures, ultimately, can lead to successes, and the problems experienced by Coursera and Udacity-and their willingness to be open about them-remind us all that we are still in the experimental phase of online education. We can choose to learn from them or use them as a ready way to dismiss all online learning. I’m choosing to learn from them.