Why Cheat? Plagiarism in MOOCs
In a post on Degree of Freedom: Adventures in Online Learning, Jonathan Haber asks why anyone would cheat in a MOOC, given that it is free and meant for personal enrichment. This is an excellent question.
My own experience, as both a teacher and a student, focuses on a specific type of cheating: plagiarism, typically defined as representing someone else’s words or ideas as one’s own. As a writing instructor, I do occasionally get a student paper that has been lifted from the Internet, usually from a “free essay” site. More to the point, as a student in last fall’s Writing in the Sciences MOOC from Coursera, I was peer reviewer for a paper that had been copied directly from a professional science journal. When I read it, I was suspicious about it because the assignment asked us to take a science journal article and write it in plain style, using techniques we had been taught. This piece clearly had not been revised. It didn’t take long to find the original article online, and, as instructed, I gave it a grade of 0 out of 5 points.
My first reaction was, like Haber’s, “Why cheat? It’s a free, non-credit class — what’s wrong with you?” For most of us, that’s probably our initial reaction — to make this an issue of morality. Only a thief (and/or, as Haber suggests, an imbecile) would do this.
I want to suggest the explanation for plagiarism in MOOCs might be more complicated.
MOOCs attract students from around the world, and different cultures have different perspectives on plagiarism and ownership in education. Lisa Wilkinson, in an article from the Internet TESL Journal, describes encounters with students from several Asian cultures who submitted work that was clearly copied from another source. When she confronted the students, their explanations were some variation on suggesting that the expert source was more reliable than their own inexpert thoughts on the subject, and so they offered the teacher better information. Often, according to Wilkinson, these students had never been asked to write original papers and their exams were rewarded for closely resembling their textbooks.
Another group of students from Vietnam, Mongolia, and China have also reported that being closer to the book source is better than having “original” ideas. They express a version of “what do I know?” when asked about why they would copy.
From that perspective, what we call “plagiarism” seems a reasonable practice. Wilkinson warns, “U.S teachers should also have realistic expectations of students after one or two semesters in American higher education. It is unreasonable to assume all students from other countries can overturn a lifetime of educational socialization in one or two semesters,” let alone the few weeks that many MOOC students have under their belts.
Complicating this is the issue of Internet culture: it’s easy to steal things online, and many people do it without thinking. This might be especially true of younger students, the “Digital Natives” born between 1980 and 2000 (a population that makes up about half of MOOC students). John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, in Born Digital, say one trait of this group is its tendency toward piracy. With little understanding of copyright and ownership law, they take whatever online material they want, and use it as they wish. When they do recognize it is wrong, they see this as something of a victimless crime, since the material is not being kept from anyone. So when a site like Facebook or YouTube informs them that the content they post is not theirs, their first reaction is not to Google “Copyright Law,” or to head to Creative Commons, but rather to find another version of whatever they were looking for, and post that instead.
It’s easy to single out one age group, but the trend doesn’t seem to be much different for Digital Immigrants, either. People take and use without thinking, no matter what the age. Cutting and pasting an assignment response is as easy as pinning a copyrighted photo on Pinterest.
International students might be even more prone to this attitude, with many considering the Internet “a ‘free zone’ and not governed by legal proprietary rights,” according to Wendy Sutherland-Smith.
Of course, Coursera does have an Honor Code, and participants are asked to click a box saying they have read and abided by the Honor Code before they can submit homework. There are two problems with this.
First, the code is very vague. Number two on the list of four items, for example, says, “My answers to my homework, quizzes, and exams will be my own work.” But couldn’t the act of cutting and pasting from another site be considered the cutter-and-paster’s “own work”? To put it differently: for someone with a weaker understanding of English, and of American academic practice, and with a different cultural perspective on the ownership of ideas, couldn’t this vague statement be interpreted in a very different way?
Preventing plagiarism in MOOCs
I am not suggesting that all MOOC participants cheat, or that they should be excused when they do so, any more than I think students in my own credit-bearing classes should be allowed to. But I do think that, if MOOC providers and instructors believe that cheating (particularly plagiarism) is an issue, then they need to approach it differently.
Scholars in my field of Composition Studies (particularly Rebecca Moore Howard) suggest that the best way to combat plagiarism is not by simply punishing, but rather by teaching: letting students know what plagiarism is, why it is bad, and how to avoid it. Presenting the issue as merely another button to click before getting to the check-out page, as does Coursera, does not amount to teaching.
In my experience, plagiarism is often dealt with in MOOCs only after it has become a problem, and only then as a reminder not to do it. The instructors in Coursera’s Crafting an Effective Writer MOOC, for example, sent an email during the fourth week of our five week semester, only after they had received reports of plagiarism. The students in this particular course were, arguably, those most likely to need a lesson in how plagiarism fits into academic culture.
The instructor in the Writing in the Sciences MOOC handled it better, providing a 23 minute video, with several examples of the nuances of plagiarism. It was an excellent discussion, though presented during week seven of eight, and not in response to reported problems, but as a lesson in course content. (In fact, she opened the lesson by saying, “Of course, everyone’s aware that you shouldn’t plagiarize . . . .”)
If plagiarism in MOOCs really is a problem, I don’t think it is Coursera’s to solve. I would suggest MOOCs that are likely to have plagiarism problems — those designed for less-experienced students, for example — include a lesson or two on plagiarism right at the start. The instructors for Crafting an Effective Writer spent the first week of the class teaching students how to be effective on-line learners, acknowledging that this way of learning was new for a lot of people. Many MOOCs could benefit from this same approach: a ten minute video during the first week, explaining what plagiarism is and why it matters, even for a course with no grades, with some encouragement that it also be an issue on a discussion board.
The Canvas Network is currently offering an eight week class called Understanding Cheating in Online Courses; Haber’s comments on cheating in MOOCs came from an assignment for this course. This class is not as open as a full-blown MOOC; it was limited to 1,000 students and filled quickly. I learned about it too late, but I’d be especially interested in hearing from participants in that course on how plagiarism, particularly in MOOCs, is being discussed.
[Editor's note: Jonathan Haber is a student in Understanding Cheating In Online Courses, and a review from him is in the works.]