As illustrated by the recent NY Times article, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) have recently gained a lot of attention because of their new model for educating students.

What are the main concerns regarding academic dishonesty in Massive Online Open Courses? It appears to me that academic dishonesty may be difficult to police for an online course. Is this correct?

  • 1
    This question is a bit tendentious, and probably would be a better question if you just deleted the entire opening paragraph and stuck with the one-sentence question. The opening paragraph contains several premises that are debateable yet not really relevant to the real question.
    – D.W.
    Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 23:19
  • Right. The opening paragraph here was deliberately designed to ruffle feathers. That's probably not necessary in this forum.
    – Jon Bannon
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 19:52
  • @JonBannon - I agree the opening paragraph is somewhat inflammatory, but I think it should be edited rather than deleted outright. It does provide some needed context to the question. Why don't you try to edit it to tone it down instead of just removing it?
    – eykanal
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 20:11
  • I've just approved DW's edit, but the core question is unconstructive, so I'm voting to close.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 7:03

4 Answers 4


I think that the question is somewhat misleading. Ethics only factor into a very small percentage of students in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC's). Most students who participate in MOOC's are only taking the course to learn something. Academic integrity is more of an issue when the students are taking the course for some external reason.

Some possible external reasons are:

  • Enrolled in the course through the university, and receiving credit for the course
  • Required to take the course by an employer
  • Taking the course as a pre-requisite for another course or program

In each of these situations, the role of verifying learning seems like it would be outside of the course itself. If students choose to cheat, it does not necessarily reflect poorly on the course or the program, but rather reflects poorly on the student.

TL;DR - Ethical concerns only matter for students who are required to take the course. The people requiring them to take the course are responsible for ensuring their academic integrity.

  • This is an interesting point of view. Currently, the burden is placed on the provider of the course to ensure academic integrity.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 11:30
  • @benNorris - You are absolutely correct! While the onus of proof has typically resided with the institution offering the course, MOOC's now allow anyone anywhere to take the course. This is one reason providers like the idea; they hope (I believe) that people will like the course and enroll in a program. Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 13:59

An obvious contrast to the peer grading efforts in Dr. Chuck’s Class title ‘Internet History,Technology and Security’ and ‘Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World’ exists.

1) ‘Internet History, Technology and Security’ has a far more lenient rubric to follow in comparison to the ‘Science Fiction’ class.

2) I’ve observed that the essays in ‘Internet History,Technology and Science Fiction’ are far more thoughtfully written and at-least follow the question for the peer response instead of a brief recap of work covered in the reading.

I’ve had to evaluate responses which describe in a way such as ‘I read Alice in Wonderland was my favorite story when I was small…….’, for a question which clearly states that you need to form a thesis(or a perspective view) for the reading material/novel/assignment for the week.

3) A major reason for this might be the obvious. ‘Science Fiction’ class releases videos of possible interpretations after the peer response whereas the ‘Internet History,Technology and Science class’ releases videos on the topic, therefore equipping its students to tackle the peer responses.

Also a funny thing occurred on the Coursera forums where ‘I was accused of cheating(plagiarism) from my own blog when I merely submitted my Peer Response anonymously while posting my copy on my Personal blog. The other students did not have an idea of who I was ‘since the peer grading’ process is anonymous.

However, there were students smart enough to recognize that it was perhaps the blog of the ‘person who submitted ‘ and the issue was clarified.

Thanks to [person] for bringing this to my notice and arguing the case in my favor. Also a note: Coursera’s plagiarism check systems should probably account for these when it does come into place.

The above block-quote is from my blog. I find it to be relevant to this question.

This accusation of plagiarism happened with me as well. I was luckily contacted by one of the other students taking the course and I could talk the other student out of down-grading me.

This could be a problem even with OpenAccess accounts as some people may like to post work which they did in classes elsewhere.

I also took part in the programming-based classes such as Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing. NLP was tough, with real life problems to be solved. However, despite being forbidden to share their programs online, a lot of students did so, because it seemed to be the only way to make something out of the course(the certificate would not count).

The reasoning being, that if I learn some concepts from these courses, I could use my github account to appeal to an employer about my skills.

'By sharing programs online, I mean people started public repositories from which any student could cheat and get a working program for submission.' Not even the best auto-grader could possibly prevent this from happening. I don't think this can be stopped in universities as well. Sure you have a honor code, but people can copy parts of code from all over the web. Make it a little original perhaps.

There's also the 'theory' that 'don't re-invent the wheel'.

For example:

'Most students would not bother with programming a separate module for Fourier Transform calculations for part of a academic program. or doing this they may use a library from elsewhere to directly import a function.' Would this be considered as copying or plagiarism? Probably not?

However, some universities(which include mine) think that programming Fourier Transforms is an important part in understanding them. So my university gives us programming assignments in a computer lab without access to the internet. All we are allowed to rely on is the already available libraries on the system. The systems are wiped clean every time.

This becomes frustrating when we need to move from AM to FM to delta modulation and so on. We need to repeatedly write the same piece of code for fourier tranforms and this drastically reduces our efficiency.

So getting an optimal solution between preventing plagiarism and 'not re-inventing the wheel' is pretty important if Coursera or any online program would need to get. Right now, there is too much focus on plagiarism and not enough effort to realize the problem of redundancy in the system.


One of the biggest challenges is to perform assessment. To scale, the most natural approach to assessment is to use purely automated methods, i.e., automated grading. However, building good automated graders is difficult.

The path of least resistance is to use multiple-choice quizzes for assessment. However, multiple-choice quizzes with a fixed question set are inherently vulnerable to cheating: it is easy for people to pool their answers or copy off each other, and difficult to detect such cheating.

One can think of ways to defend against this, but in general, I expect that providing high-quality (yet not gameable) assessment may be one of the non-trivial challenges facing MOOCs.


While I tend to agree with @jelkimantis, I would go a step further. I think the issue of academic integrity is a bit misguided. This is true not just in MOOC's but in more traditional institutions as well.

Some people want to think that when they see a candidate has a degree from XYZ University that they no longer need to put in any effort into the interview (or whatever) process. Most humans are naturally lazy and if they can skip digging, they are happy to do so. The problem comes in that those people are making some very big assumptions which likely should not be made.

I would argue that the hiring process is one of the most important processes in any company. A bad hire can haunt you for a very long time and a good hire can save you in so many ways. Still, people want to skip as much of the hiring process as they can (on both sides) so if someone has the right degree they are assumed to have the knowledge which goes with that degree. The problems is, they might not have that knowledge.

The knowledge might not be there for several reasons:

  1. They might have learned and then forgotten due to workload
  2. They might have had someone else take an exam for them
  3. They might have cheated during the exams and never learned in the first place

Regardless of the reason, if the knowledge is not there, it is not there. So, why make any assumptions? The only reason I can see is for those who do not understand to manage those who do understand. However, even in that case, if you don't understand and your subordinate does, then you better give that subordinate a pretty free hand...because you can't check anyway.

I know, it's a long answer but I think the entire question about academic integrity is not a huge issue. As a teacher, I care a great deal if students are cheating. That said, with the number of students I teach, there is no way I can effectively monitor them all. Even if I could, it doesn't solve the underlying problem. If someone is going to hire someone (or promote someone) based on their taking a course or gaining a degree, then they should be willing to do the work to ensure that what was taught was retained.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .