Coursera looks to curb cheating in free courses

Coursera’s honor code will be used in three classes.

Coursera, the massive online open course (MOOC) site with myriad university partnerships, will require students to sign an honor code statement before they take the free classes.

The honor code was introduced in three Coursera classes – with plans to expand the code to more courses – after media reports detailed rampant plagiarism in the no-charge courses that offer curriculum from Princeton, University of Michigan, Stanford, and Penn, among other schools.

Students already checked a box indicating that they would comply with Coursera’s academic standards. The new policy includes an honor code agreement with every assignment submitted for grading by fellow students.

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“In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work,” the statement said.

Coursera, which recently eclipsed 1 million students, offers courses from 16 colleges and universities, with plans to add more this year.

Perhaps the rash of MOOC cheating incidents won’t shock higher education officials.

Fifty-five percent of college presidents who responded to a 2011 Pew survey said there has been a noticeable uptick in plagiarism over the past decade. Among those presidents who reported a plagiarism increase, nearly nine in 10 blamed the internet and online classes.

Annie Murphy Paul, author of, “Brilliant: The Science of Smart,” wrote in a blog post that anyone lifting from someone else’s work is, most of all, cheating themselves, especially in free Coursera classes that don’t award college credit.

“Like a thief who steals an empty safe, they make for easy objects of derision,” Murphy Paul wrote. “But while many of us know better than to pass off another person’s work as our own, we think little of engaging in the intellectual equivalent of cutting and pasting.”

Murphy Paul said the extra scrutiny on students taking free online classes purely for intellectual edification should bring attention to the downfalls of cheating, even when the consequence is minor.

“The ethical infraction is minor, but the crime against our intellectual lives is great,” she wrote. “Every time we mentally skim the surface, every time we allow someone else to do thinking, we miss a chance to develop deep knowledge. Even without a grade, it counts.”

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