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Course Review: Understanding Cheating In Online Courses

Understanding Cheating in Online Courses is delivered through the MOOC platform which itself opens up some interesting questions.

Cheating MOOC

Hariadhi via Wikimedia

For Canvas is an initiative of Instructure, one of the up-and-coming providers of learning management system (LMS) technology, which, like their competitors Blackboard and Moodle, is deployed on college campuses. LMSs are used by instructors to distribute class content, by students to review and submit assignments and by administrators to manage grades.

While these systems started as a data convenience for the student/teacher/administration hierarchy managing traditional classroom-based courses, LMSs have evolved to provide support for online and hybrid courses, acting as the glue that holds together various components of a course regardless of where the student and teacher are located.

What makes LMSs interesting to those of us in the MOOC game is that thousands of online and hybrid courses are already deployed via this technology, which means that turning existing classes into MOOCs may just be a matter of opening one or more of these systems to the world. This is what Instructure is experimenting with via their Canvas Network, a system currently providing  public access to a few dozen courses for limited audiences.

(600 signed up for Cheating.)

So with that speculation behind us, how did Understanding Cheating in Online Courses stack up as a MOOC?

Well, I definitely learned a great deal from the course in which Professor Bernard Bull of Concordia University introduced a series of questions and issues surrounding how and why students cheat on exams or engage in one of the various flavors of plagiarism and what difference it makes whether those students are sitting in a classroom or taking the class online.

As I discussed in the final class assignment (which I posted here and here on the Degree of Freedom blog), the fact that cheating is more about laziness than outright dishonesty is an important thing to know as we think about what kinds of assignments might encourage students to learn (rather than cut corners) when enrolled in a massive online class. And it was interesting to discover that cheating seems no more prevalent in online than offline courses (but only because too much of it is taking place in both).

The class was structured very similarly to another high-level, LMS-driven, education class I took several years ago with the professor building each week around a specific theme (the psychology of cheating, the role of the teacher, etc.) attached to readings, video talks (a few from the professor, but mostly from outside educators and product vendors) and assignments (called “missions” – most  of which involved making contributions to forums dedicated to specific topics).

For grading, Professor Bull made use of learning badges that were originally popularized in places like Khan Academy. And in order to make the class feel as welcoming as possible, the professor allowed anyone to participate at any level they liked, including inviting outsiders to audit lectures or even check out the reading lists.

In theory, such openness and flexibility should have made the course extremely lively and interactive, especially since with only 600 participants enrolled, there could have been more intimate interaction than in a MOOC with 100,000+ student. But despite having learned much from being enrolled in Cheating In Online Courses, I must admit that the experience felt less like taking a course and more like participating in a symposium where academics and product people taught and learned from one another, without much being asked of them beyond showing up.

Not that there’s anything wrong with an open, welcoming and flexible learning format. But given how few of us actually ended up participating in “missions” or really interacting with each other on the message boards during the length of the class, I suspect that this lack of class-like structure may have left people thinking virtually everything was optional with the course (including sticking with it).

I hope this judgment doesn’t seem unduly harsh, especially since the material presented during the class was extremely enlightening, and I’m sincerely hoping Professor Bull gives the course again. But if he does, I highly recommend he take a few steps to make it feel more class-like by:

• Anchoring the program in a series of weekly lectures by the professor, with visits from other scholars or outside experts serving the role of “field trips” designed to reinforce the topic being discussed each week.

• Adding quizzes and assignments beyond weekly contributions to the forums (and/or make those weekly contributions a firmer requirement) so that students maintain a level of engagement throughout the course.

• Wrapping up with some kind of capstone project (a 3-5 page paper or video presentation) that could be peer graded or made the subject of discussion amongst classmates via forums or video hangouts.

Now it might just be that I’m wired for classes centered on a professor teaching me things on a weekly basis, but I suspect that the lack of demand on students (something I’ve seen with many, if not most of my MOOC courses) is actually a disincentive for staying engaged.

Demand level is one of the most inconsistent aspects of the many massive online courses I’ve taken so far, so it is not just Professor Bull or Canvas that has to engage with this issue. In fact, what a MOOC should provide beyond great lectures from noted experts is something we should all be talking about (certainly before deciding that these new technology-driven options mean the death of traditional education).


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources.  Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.


Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at