Many are proclaiming 2012 is the year of the MOOC — Massive Open Online Course — thanks to the arrival of major players, edX, Udacity and Coursera all started by colleagues from elite American universities.
The courses are “massive” with sometimes tens of thousands of students and “open” (free to enrol) but one big unanswered question is how these courses intend to preserve their credibility in assessment and accreditation?
Not easily is the answer, and already there are reports of incidents of plagiarism in some MOOCs. So far the stakes are low, but what will happen when the chance to get academic credit or even a job tempt even the most scrupulous student?
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Most MOOCs so far offer quizzes as their main form of assessment – short multiple-choice question and answers that are automated. Instructors, of course, cannot be sure who does the quiz but some MOOCs are now choosing other types of assessment that could be more open to foul play.
Coursera, for example, includes submission of essay style answers, graded through peer assessment, because, as the online service notes: “in many courses, the most meaningful assignments do not lend themselves easily to automated grading by a computer.” But of course, when you have thousands of students you have thousands of essay assignments which cannot be marked by one lecturer.
So Coursera has turned to crowd-sourced marking, and claims students can accurately give feedback to other students. This might be true if the assessment were in a traditional course, but with few consequences what’s to stop students from skewing the system?
In assessment, as in life, most people do the right thing, but there are still those who deliberately cheat. Coursera seems to be wide open on this, although they do ask every student to agree to an honour code every time they submit an essay assignment. But human nature being what it is, such statements do not deter scoundrels.
In its section on pedagogy, Coursera says it expects that “by having multiple students grade each piece of homework, we will be able to obtain grading accuracy comparable or even superior to that provided by a single teaching assistant.” But this claim needs scrutiny.