Today, at the urging of the California governor, Udacity—a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) provider, the hot new thing in higher education that offers free online courses by elite professors to students worldwide—and San Jose State University announced a partnership to provide incoming students with remedial and basic education in algebra and statistics. Last week, Coursera, another MOOC provider, announced a fee-based course-for-credit option.
While it’s fascinating to witness the transformation of MOOCs from a Twitter trend to a viable disruption in the current higher education model, there’s still a nagging question: If students will cheat in an online course that’s free and can’t offer credit, what happens when these courses become monetized and (ahem) creditized?
Stories of cheating already litter the MOOC landscape. Whether it’s plagiarism in a humanities course or coordinating test-taking with peers, the incentive is there. There’s no proctor looking over your shoulder; it’s just you. As Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, wrote last summer, online classes are susceptible to cheating because there’s a natural emotional distance between the student and the professor—no classroom to connect the dots.
I recently enrolled in a Coursera course and, when I’m not struggling to stay focused on the lectures, I wonder about Ariely’s assessment. As an undergrad at a traditional liberal arts college, my classmates and I were bound by the Honor Principle, an undefined yet oft-discussed concept where students consider the consequences of their actions on the community at large. It was by no means perfect at policing against cheating, but it fit the Socratic lifestyle of my liberal arts education.
Contrast this experience with Coursera. While working through my first assignment for a class on R programming, I ran into an intractable problem. After a few minutes of error codes, I turned first to Google then to the class discussion board. It took me less than 3 minutes to navigate my way to an answer. First thought: that was easy. Second thought: was it too easy? A week later, I remember neither the problem nor the solution, but I aced the quiz. Maybe by Coursera standards it wasn’t cheating, but it certainly felt like it.
Advancements to monitor cheating in online courses are particularly important for partnerships like the one between Udacity and SJSU. Tracking student performance in online remedial classes directly influences the student’s college career. Accurate performance assessment dictates class placement (and likely future performance), which in turn influences time to degree completion (and the costs a student incurs).
If Udacity and Coursera prove successful in their new partnerships, they’ll effectively lower costs and increase learning for hundreds of thousands of students. But, how do you monitor and limit cheating in an environment where the distance between student and professor eases the student’s moral compass? With their credibility on the line, it would be well worth it for MOOC providers to weigh the implications of Ariely’s cheating conundrum carefully.