Problems with Online Education Haven’t Discouraged Its Supporters

By Chelsea Vollrath

Excitement surrounding massive open online courses and companies providing these services, like Coursera, is growing, especially in recent weeks following the company announcing reaching the milestone of registering its millionth student. However, less than a week after the announcement, an article by Jeffrey Young at The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that some of the concerns regarding MOOCs have become realities.

The title of Young’s article, “Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera’s Free Online Courses,” announces that the plagiarism MOOC critics were afraid of has already been detected. The incidents were reported by fellow Coursera students who are responsible for grading their classmates’ work under the peer grading system implemented in the three humanities courses the company offers. Many were surprised by the fraudulent behavior though, considering students do not receive credit for the courses.

Co-founder Daphne Koller planned on looking into how widespread the reports are, curious to see whether the behavior is more frequent than in traditional classrooms. The company is considering adding software to automatically detect suspected plagiarism, but, in the meantime, they are requiring students to renew the commitment to the academic honor code they agree to upon registration every time essays are submitted for grading. Young’s follow up article “Coursera Adds Honor-Code Prompt in Response to Reports of Plagiarism” includes the specific language of the commitment, which states: “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.”

Koller believes a large factor in the prevalence of plagiarism is an inadequate understanding of expected standards in the U.S., likely because Coursera attracts students from overseas. Considering this assumption, company officials are optimistic that the mere reminder of expected behavior will reduce the number of incidents. The honor code prompt only affects the three courses including essay assignments; however, there are other cheating related issues to which other courses are vulnerable. A Forbes article on the subject, “Are They Learning Or Cheating? Online Teaching’s Dilemma,” written by George Anders, highlights another potential issue of students creating dummy accounts so they are able to enter the class several times and work to perfect multiple-choice quizzes before taking the class using their real names.

While cheating is an obvious concern, clearly for good reason, there are other disadvantages to the online education system that make people skeptical of its success. University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business addresses several concerns surrounding MOOCs in “Can Free Online Courses Transform the Higher Education Industry?” published by Knowledge@Wharton. Vice Dean of Executive Education at Wharton, Jason Wingard, questions whether the system compromises prestige of the participating elite universities. He points out: “Many of these platforms are free. If you’re giving away course content, that might undermine your brand.” Though this seems to be a legitimate concern, participating universities do not share that sentiment and actually believe MOOCs will have the opposite effect by enhancing their international standing.

Another concern over MOOCs often expressed is the absence of a physical campus and the learning environment associated with peer-to-peer and professor-to-student interaction. Vice Dean of Wharton’s undergraduate division, Georgette Chapman Phillips, disagrees with the growing belief that MOOCs create a level playing field between those attending the participating schools and those who are registered in MOOCs at the same university. She explains that the MOOC students miss out on the “application of cutting-edge research [and] teaching and mentoring” that makes Penn such a highly valued institution. A professor writing for an Inside Higher Ed blog shows concern over the lack of a shared physical space as well, speaking fondly in her post, “Virtual Community and Physical Space,” of the “rich sensory memories of place where [students] work, meet others, and participate in campus life” that students taking online courses are unable to experience. However, as the article on Knowledge@Wharton points out, students and the way they learn have changed. They demand convenience and ease in learning, which is catered to by online education.

Werbach believes higher education is due for a change as well. He described the system as unstable and predicts it will inevitably run into stress because of the overwhelming student loan burden. Therefore, it seems Coursera’s offering access to higher education to those otherwise unable to afford it is directly in line with the needs of the system.

If MOOCs are going to succeed in reshaping education, there are several formalities that must be addressed, but educators, their institutions, and students all have reason to be enthusiastic about Coursera and the emergence of MOOCs.

Chelsea Vollrath is a senior at Elon University majoring in English with a concentration in professional writing and rhetoric. Elon is home to the Eta of North Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.