Amid plagiarism reports, Coursera adds honor code reminders

On the heels of reports that some students on online course platform Coursera have copied content from other sources, the education startup this week started rolling out what co-founder Daphne Koller called their ‘first line of defense’ against plagiarism: honor code reminders that students must acknowledge reading before submitting some assignments.

The new addition comes after a story last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education about dozens of plagiarism incidents reported by students and professors on the platform. According to the story, students in at least three humanities courses on the site, which use peer grading, have complained about other students who have lifted content from Wikipedia and potentially elsewhere.

As online education has gained momentum in the past year, questions about the potential for cheating have also become more persistent. Online tests are often taken without the presence of an in-person proctor and, in general, students might feel as though they are less likely to get caught cheating in a virtual environment. On platforms like Coursera, Udacity and others that offer MOOCs (massive, open, online courses) students may feel like they have less to lose as they’re not paying for the experience, don’t earn academic credit and have less of a connection with the professor.

To keep students honest, a number of startups use digital tools to monitor student behavior, including their keystrokes and activities online. In online exam environments, for example, companies like ProctorCam allow people to proctor exams virtually via Webcam. Turnitin scans papers and assignments to detect plagiarism.

Koller said the company is currently assessing the scale of the problem on Coursera and is considering using plagiarism detection tools.

“We don’t yet know how widespread this is and how widespread it is relative to on-campus [education],” she said.  On Coursera, where classes can include tens of thousands of students, everything is magnified, including incidences of cheating. But it might not occur with more frequency than it does in traditional classes.

When students sign up for a Coursera class, they’re asked to accept an honor code, but the new reminders have been added for classes that use peer-graded essay-style assessments (instead of quizzes). Before submitting their assignments, a screen with the code pop ups, prompting students to read the code and check boxes affirming their acknowledgment of it.

In light of the cheating reports, some have questioned why students would even choose to cheat when they can’t earn academic credit for completing courses. While it’s true that students are not rewarded in traditional ways for free online courses offered by Coursera and others, as these platforms grow, students may be able to connect with employers and parlay their performance in these courses into new opportunities.