Are online courses more susceptible to cheating problems?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting story about plagiarism related to Coursera, a new consortium of colleges offering free, non-credit courses. Among the 16-member participant universities are Georgia Tech, Stanford, Duke, Princeton, University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins.

As the Chronicle story notes, plagiarism is a problem even in conventional classrooms, but poses additional challenges in mass-enrolled online courses that rely on peer review and grading of assignments, as does Coursera.

I wrote about the surge in free online college courses a few weeks ago. At this point, the courses — many of which are in the computer sciences realm — do not offer college credit, but certificates of completion.

The Chronicle focuses on complaints of plagiarism in a fantasy and science fiction class being offered by Coursera. This is only an excerpt so please read the full piece before offering a comment.

According to the Chronicle:

Students taking free online courses offered by the startup company Coursera have reported dozens of incidents of plagiarism, even though the courses bear no academic credit. This week a professor leading one of the so-called Massive Open Online Courses posted a plea to his 39,000 students to stop plagiarizing, and Coursera’s leaders say they will review the issue and consider adding plagiarism-detection software in the future.

In recent weeks, students in at least three Coursera humanities courses have complained of plagiarized assignments by other students. The courses use peer grading, so each student is asked to grade and offer comments on the work of fellow students.

Many students in the discussion expressed surprise that their peers would resort to fraudulent behavior in a noncredit course. Students who complete a course can get a certificate attesting to that accomplishment, but so far the courses do not count for credit at any university.

Meanwhile, professors teaching the courses say they are worried that some students are being overly zealous in hunting for plagiarism, and at least one student complained in the forums about being accused in error.

“An accusation of plagiarism is a deeply serious act and should be made only with concrete evidence behind it,” wrote the professor teaching the fantasy course, Eric S. Rabkin, in a message to students posted on Monday. His letter, clocking in at more than 1,200 words, attempted to define plagiarism, underline its importance, and convey how complicated he felt the issue could be.

A professor teaching a Coursera course about the history of the Internet, Charles Severance, wrote to his students this month about plagiarism as well, after several students reported in the forums that they had seen it in assignments they graded. “If you see/suspect plagiarism—be kind and keep any of your comments about plagiarism short and to the point—do not criticize or flame the person—make sure your comments will help someone learn,” he told them.

One Coursera student who witnessed plagiarism in a course is Laura K. Gibbs, who is herself a lecturer teaching online literature courses at the University of Oklahoma. She enrolled in the Coursera course on fantasy and science fiction to get a better sense of how MOOC’s work, since they’ve been in the news so much lately as a possible way to disrupt conventional higher education. She was enthusiastic about the reading list and the rigor of the course, which asks students to spend eight to 12 hours per week on reading and homework.

“I always tell students it’s six to eight hours per week, every week, and I feel lucky to get six,” she said. “I was really excited that this was trying to be an upper-division humanities course.”

She said she was frustrated when she read discussion posts about plagiarism, and then saw evidence of it in one of the peer assignments she graded. “It’s what at my university we’d call patchwork plagiarism,” she said. “I’m naïve enough that I was really surprised by that.”

She complained on her blog that Coursera and the course’s professor had been slow to respond to the incidents. And she argued that Mr. Rabkin’s message to students did not give her enough guidance on how to respond to what seemed like clear-cut instances of plagiarism.

Ms. Gibbs stressed that she is largely enthusiastic about Coursera and the idea of free courses online, but that “it’s going to take an enormous amount of work to make it work.”

Another faculty member taking a Coursera course, Steven D. Krause, said he doubted that peer grading could ever work without instructors’ looking at all assignments. He said he uses the technique in his writing courses at Eastern Michigan University, where he is a professor of English and coordinator of the written-communication program, but he always looks over the peer grading and checks that the students are on track. “Usually there’s some sort of norming by the instructors,” he said.

“The idea that this could scale as a broad substitute for higher education is, I think, ridiculous,” he added. “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.”

But Mr. Rabkin, who is teaching the Coursera course on fantasy and science fiction, argues that peer grading can work in free courses, even without direct involvement by the professor. “Sometimes the professor’s grade is wrong for whatever reasons,” he said.

“I’m not interested in proving this could substitute for the University of Michigan,” he added. “What I’m after is seeing if we have a way of capitalizing on a large group of people with smart software and a clever system that can make a community that has guidance and can teach itself.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

27 comments Add your comment

Pride and Joy

August 20th, 2012
10:23 am

This is another good reason to eliminate any thought of more kids taking online clases in lieu of classes taught by real, live human beings.
Online learning is good for adults who want to stay on top of developments in their industry or for pleasure. Online learning for k-college is ridiculous.
More need more educated human beings teaching our children; we don’t need to short change them by giving them a lousy computer “course”.

Hillbilly D

August 20th, 2012
10:35 am

Seems it would be easier to cheat in an online course. Of course, even at traditional colleges, I’ve read where some students pay others to write papers for them and things like that. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.


August 20th, 2012
10:39 am

There are tools in place that gauge likeness in documents that are uploaded for grading. You can’t turn in an assignment at most universities with a likeness score of 25% or more. If you do, you will get dinged on your grade. Citations have to accurate as well. These mechanisms are put into place by the university. You can also check your document prior to uploading to make sure your content is falling into the acceptable range.

Claudia Stucke

August 20th, 2012
10:44 am

A lot of schools do use tools such as to check for plagiarism, but plagiarism is a problem even in face-to-face classrooms. The additional problem for online courses is that, without proper security measures in place, students can actually take tests for each other.


August 20th, 2012
10:55 am

Not sure why this is reported on. Obviously, in a NON-CREDIT learning course the only victim of cheating would be the cheater himself. Rather like “cheating” on your diet.

Say, Maureen—got that statistic on the percent of salaried staff writers at the AJC who are African-American?

Another Math Teacher

August 20th, 2012
10:56 am

Is this the thread where a bunch of people who have never taught online claim that the cheating rate is higher? Is this the thread where ignorant people claim that online courses are taught by computers?

The rates are very similar. Why does it appear to ignorant people that the rates of cheating are higher online? Simple, it’s easier to catch. Ever try to see if a printed paper is plagiarized? The reader has to know the source. An electronic version? Search for phrases that you do not think a student would use.

My response when I catch them cheating? I take a screen shot of what they stole off the web and place it in their comments with the grade of 0. Along with a link to the schools academic policy.

Maureen Downey

August 20th, 2012
11:07 am

@Chuntter, I wish posters would take three minutes to do research before asking embarrassing questions. Your goal is to suggest that the AJC does not have a lot of minorities when the opposite is true. Had you even bothered to do a simple check, you would have learned that Cox — the parent company of the AJC — has been recognized for its diversity for decades. Cox Communications Inc was named one of the Top 50 Companies for Diversity and Top 10 Companies for African Americans.
Did a quick census of our main office newsroom — please keep in mind that we have staff at several locations — and I counted 40 percent minorities in the newsroom, including more than a dozen top editors.

GA Transplant

August 20th, 2012
11:13 am

Maureen, I normally love the information you have to share and I am usually a very positive person, but this is a dumb article. It isn’t interesting at all. Who cares about non-credit courses at an unaccredited school? What accredited college allows peer reviews and peer grading? None that I know of. I teach online and all of the colleges use some form of plagiarism software, such as The Chronicle for Higher Ed., must have all of their good writers on vacation or they are running out of topics that most want to read about .

Maureen Downey

August 20th, 2012
11:17 am

@An open note to living in an outdated ed system: Your posts are in moderation because you have earned too many complaints from readers about going off topic and about personal attacks. You have sworn in the past that you are done with this blog, that you don’t like the topics or the comments. As I have told you in the past, you are not being forced to read this blog. There are thousands of education blogs out there. Find one more to your liking. This blog is not the public square. It is operated according to the guidelines set by the AJC. Among those guidelines: Block posters who garner lots of complaints, who don’t address the issue at hand or who go on the attack. You fall into all three categories. And please feel free to take this to higher AJC editors, as you have done in the past. Their advice to you will be the same as it was a few months ago: With all your complaints, perhaps Get Schooled is not the blog for you. I hate to lose readers, but you register more complaints about this blog in a week than my thousands of other readers do in a year.
So, please, stop reading. We will both be better off as a result.


August 20th, 2012
11:29 am

What is the point to cheating in a non credit course? All this alleged plagiarism is most likely enemy action, people and organizations opposed to free on line education seeking to discredit such programs. I use such programs solely for the purpose of self improvement, competing against myself. There is no reason to cheat.

what's best for kids???

August 20th, 2012
11:31 am

Maureen, the cheating is rampant. Who is to know whether Johnny and Janie are doing their own work or if their parents/uncles/aunts/paid apprentices are doing it for them?
Happens all the time. Kinda like when moms and dads do the first grade science fair project for their kids so they win.

what's best for kids???

August 20th, 2012
11:32 am

@ Maureen is on a roll today. Love it!


August 20th, 2012
11:34 am

@Maureen: My question about salaried African-American AJC writers has to do with … salaried African-American AJC writers.

Wikipedia lists Atlanta’s population as 54% black. Shouldn’t one of the city’s foremost advocates of workplace diversity be absolutely scrupulous about living by its own gospel?


August 20th, 2012
11:44 am

What is the point to cheating in a non credit course?

What’s the point to cheating on the Peachtree by jumping in at the 5 mile mark with a race number? For that matter, what’s the point of contacting AJC editors because Maureen won’t let you post? People get weird ideas about what’s important.

Never underestimate humanity’s quest to cut corners, even when the goal is seemingly pointless from your perspective.


August 20th, 2012
11:51 am

Don’t ever, ever, ever cite Wikipedia in a situation like this.

It’s like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Another Math Teacher

August 20th, 2012
12:03 pm

Ms. Downey,

You let Chuntter troll you. Took you right off topic.

Maureen Downey

August 20th, 2012
12:08 pm

@Another, My second oldest just got back from eight months abroad and took a look at the blog. He had just one question and one comment, but I think he was on target:
Him: Can you block posters who don’t offer anything worthwhile?
Me: Yes.
Him: Your blog would be a lot better if you did it more.

I think he is right.

Maureen (Going off topic for the last time today.)


August 20th, 2012
12:22 pm

In many ways, our culture still emphasizes ‘face to face’ interactions over remote collaboration. In some areas, working from home is not accepted as a viable means for getting things done. As a result, many perceive there will be more ’shenanigans’ when the remote individuals cannot be seen. I’m surprised there hasn’t been greater adoption of this, perhaps because metrics don’t exist to quantify a strong ROI using this.

Yes, online learning can result in more cheating, especially if the learner is not motivated and lacks personal interest in the topic. On the other hand, isn’t this true for regular classes?


August 20th, 2012
1:30 pm

Maureen, Saturday’s vacuuming of the house for your returning child was your given reason for not discussing the percentage of salaried African-American AJC staff writers (as part of a broader discussion on diversity).

Today it’s once again your child to the rescue?

Pride and Joy

August 20th, 2012
1:33 pm

Chuntter, why do you care what color the journalists are at the AJC?
Good writing and good reporting is colorblind.

Pride and Joy

August 20th, 2012
1:39 pm

Aquagirl, I agree with your post but also want to add thta people cheat on online courses for different reasons. Ever heard of “extra credit”? Teachers may be offering extra credit for those courses. Also, people may be trying to beef up their resume’ by lying and cheaing on online courses.So, there is more reason to cheat than just silliness but I also agree with you that people cheat for stupid non-sensical reasons too. Here’s one — I knew this guy in high school who removed all the Trivial Pursuit cards from the game and memorized all the answers so that when he played he would appear smarter. It made no sense to us. He was already popular, smart, good-looking and had a nice family. He was already the “big man on campus” so why did he feel it was necessary to impress people that already liked and admired him?
I have no clue but when i found out what he was doing, I thought less of him, not more.

bootney farnsworth

August 20th, 2012
2:11 pm

of course its easy to cheat in on line courses. the moment any new technology is rolled out, there are already 10,000 hackers who have beaten it.

that by itself isn’t a reason to roll back on line offerings – it just means its more important to develop ways to validate responses, and that some things (for now) should remain in class offerings.


August 20th, 2012
4:06 pm

Online courses are just a means of delivering instructions, so let’s not blame the medium for students’ lack of academic integrity. Plagiarism is rampant in regular face-to-face instruction as well and is a problem that plagues k-12 and higher ed institutions worldwide. Plagiarism detection software such as and can help, but it’s definitely not the solution.

the prof

August 20th, 2012
5:22 pm

“fantasy course” pretty much describes online courses….


August 20th, 2012
7:47 pm

Yesterday, @Maureen said:

“Maureen Downey

August 18th, 2012
2:00 pm
I have to agree that many folks here are applying a limited definition to “diversity.” Anyone who has a child applying to college knows that diversity now refers to far more than race. When colleges seek a diverse student body, they are talking about geography, choice of majors, high school size, high school programs, income, extracurricular interests, talents and sports.”

Today, she says that diversity really is about race:

“Maureen Downey

August 20th, 2012
11:07 am
@Chuntter, I wish posters would take three minutes to do research before asking embarrassing questions. Your goal is to suggest that the AJC does not have a lot of minorities when the opposite is true. Had you even bothered to do a simple check, you would have learned that Cox — the parent company of the AJC — has been recognized for its diversity for decades. Cox Communications Inc was named one of the Top 50 Companies for Diversity and Top 10 Companies for African Americans.
Did a quick census of our main office newsroom — please keep in mind that we have staff at several locations — and I counted 40 percent minorities in the newsroom, including more than a dozen top editors.”

To be fair, today’s politically correct definition of “diversity” is anybody but a heterosexual white male.

Lewis Carroll would have a field day with today’s doublespeak….

Vicky Phillips

August 23rd, 2012
1:35 pm

Hi Maureen,

I picked up your blog commentary on cheating online as I was researching this same topic. Being in the field of online learning at the college level what I object to most about this particular Chronicle piece was that it used anecdotal evidence to suggest that cheating is a credibility issue that plagues online learning.

In fact, research (as opposed to opinion and anecdotes) show that cheating in online courses is not likely a bigger issue online than it is on-campus (where it is HUGE BTW).

In response to this issue, I looked last week at the online education myth that students cheat like weasels,

Here is a summary from the research side of things:

“Empirical studies show that cheating in college classes is neither unique to online learning nor more prevalent online than it is in the typical college classroom.

Research shows people believe cheating in online classes MUST be more common, but that belief is largely a myth. The idea that online learning corrupts one’s moral intellectual fiber is based more on prejudice — and perhaps the new media need to create a sensational blog post every 24 hours — than on any body of hard evidence.

One research study, for example, found that 32.1% of live-class and 32.7% of online-class students admitted to cheating within the last semester. That, folks, is not a significant difference.”

Just my two cents on an issue that comes up and is used too often, I fear, as an incendiary.

All the best
Vicky Phillips

Kirk Ocke

August 24th, 2012
11:13 am

@Pride and Joy – the idea that free online education opportunities are “ridiculous” except in the cases of specific industry developments and pleasure, is itself a ridiculous assertion. There are many people who can’t afford to educate themselves via traditional delivery methods, and for those people free online education is a golden opportunity to raise themselves up. Yes, a great teacher makes a huge difference, but your assertion that those do not exist on sites like Coursera is dead wrong.

P.S. – I am currently in the Fantasy and Science Fiction course described in the article and it is every bit as difficult (and valuable) as any college course I’ve ever taken. Previously I’ve taken the “Probabilistic Graphical Models” at Coursera, which is the most challenging course I’ve taken since a course on “Differential Geometry of Curves and Surface” in my undergraduate days.