Monday, September 16, 2013

"Cheating" in MOOCs seems like a problem for investors, not students

I read a great article this weekend over at The Daily Dot about the prevalence of cheating in today's Massively Open Online Courses. I agree with a lot of what Professor James Lang has to say about how we have to look at the course itself, not the tangible rewards the course offers, in order to understand why students are cheating. But I also think, contrary to what many others have said, that it's precisely the lack of tangible reward in these non-accredited courses that makes this "cheating" in MOOCs a problem that only exists for MOOC investors, not for students or educators.

Now, before you make the mistake of thinking I'm soft on cheating in general, let me be clear that I'm not. I've spent a great many years working in higher education, both as a student and as an instructor, and I don't take cheating or plagiarism lightly. Students should be there to learn, and teachers must be making sure that students are learning the right way to do things. How those student may or may not choose to cut corners later in life is ultimately their own choice, but in the classroom, you're certifying that these students have the skills to get by the honest way, hence cheating must be strictly verboten.

But the story with MOOCs is a different one. As Lang's article notes, most MOOCs have no meaningful reward. The certifications many courses offer carry no more weight in the real world than an achievement badge in a video game. Now, for some people, it's exactly because the stakes for failure in a MOOC are so trivially low that cheating is such a surprise because "behaving dishonestly makes no practical sense." However, I think the real problem is that because success in these courses is so utterly meaningless, it's hard to argue that there's anything truly dishonest about students completing these courses in any way they like.


MOOCs, as I've experienced them, are essentially exercises in self-instruction. Participants watch videos, browse online forums, and, if you want that badge of completion, you attempt the quizzes and exercises provided. For the most part, they're more comparable to reading a textbook than to taking an on-campus course. The real learning comes from trying to figure out how to apply the course basics to problems or situations that are relevant to your own unique interests, so the question to my mind is whether it matters the means by which a student extracts those skills? If I choose the path of least resistance when taking a MOOC, can you really call any shortcuts I take "cheating" if I gain no competitive edge over anyone else by my actions? Likewise, if I install a mod to a computer game to make it easier to play, who's to say my way of enjoying the game is the "wrong" way?

Even the assumption that cheating "makes no practical sense" seems misguided when aimed at the self-learner. The argument against looking up answers assumes that students are hurting themselves by not attempting to solve the problem on their own first. But that kind of thinking assumes that the course has adequately prepared students with all the tools they need to solve the problems at hand. When a course fails to walk-through sample exercises for complex or multi-step problems, which is a difficult task to do adequately when thousands of students of widely varying skill levels are enrolled in a course, there's a lot to be said for allowing students to work backwards from the right answer.

To the self-teacher, the ability to reverse engineer a problem is just as valuable a skill as anything else the course might possible teach. And absent an environment where my reverse engineering could give me a competitive edge over someone who struggled (and maybe failed) to work out the answer on her own, it seems that there's simply no rational basis for saying that kind of problem solving is unfair, let alone impractical.

Ultimately, I think James Lang hits the nail on the head when he said that poor course design has a big role to play in whether or not students choose to phone it in when it comes to taking a MOOC, however, I don't think he goes far enough toward exposing the root of the problem. I'd argue that the root cause of the poor course design is ultimately the MOOCs' own massively profit-driven ambitions. The quality of a MOOC suffers when developers try to have their cake and eat it, too, and yet that's exactly what most MOOC providers do.

For those invested in seeing the MOOC successfully disrupt higher education, it's important that the MOOC learners parallel the "honest" traditional learner as closely as possible. They want the course to have the same reputation for academic rigor as top-tier research universities, while at the same time ensuring that courses remain as accessible as possible because that accessibility will provide the opportunity for profit.

But far from disrupting higher education, so far MOOCs have only shown just how much more effective traditional classrooms are at assessing mastery than massive online learning. Teaching thousands of students at once means that mastery can only be tested for on the most superficial level and multiple choices tests, automated graders, and peer review are the weapons of choice. Not only do these methods do little to prove mastery, they do little to intellectually engage the very students who have enrolled in the courses to learn.

The students who will get anything out of MOOCs, then, are those who have the tenacity and motivation to teach themselves how to apply the basic course content to problems outside the classroom. And for as long as that remains true, why not let students use and abuse MOOCs however they like?

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