Web Classes Grapple With Stopping Cheats

Traditional colleges and a new breed of online-education providers, trying to figure out how to profit from the rising popularity of massive open online courses, are pouring resources into efforts to solve a problem that has bedeviled teachers for centuries: How can students be stopped from cheating?

Coursera, a Silicon Valley-based MOOC, recently launched a keystroke system to recognize individual students' typing patterns. EdX, its East Coast rival, is employing palm-vein scans. Other strategies include honor codes, remote web-camera proctors and test-taking centers.

Until recently, MOOCs have offered only certificates of completion that in some cases come with a letter grade. Typically, papers have been assessed by fellow students and tests marked by computers. Students frequently study together in online chat rooms—and there is often little to prevent them from cheating on tests or papers.

The efforts to stamp out cheating underscore just how much the stakes are rising. Until now, MOOCs have generally been free of charge and the most popular classes have attracted 150,000 students at a time. More than three million students from at least 160 countries have signed up for courses ranging from "A Beginners Guide to Irrational Behavior" to "Financial Engineering and Risk Management." Given the vast profit potential, MOOCs are scrambling to ensure the academic integrity of the courses.

"The concern [about online cheating] has been around for a while, but MOOCs' scale is so large it really magnifies the issue," said Cathy Sandeen, a vice president at the American Council on Education, which last week recommended that five Coursera classes should be eligible for academic credit, in part because they have standards in place to prevent cheating.

Coursera's keystroke system relies on an algorithm developed in-house that analyzes typing patterns. Among the metrics it takes into account: error patterns, typing speed and even how long specific keys are held down.

Initial measurements are taken during the enrollment process when students type Coursera's honor code, said co-founder Andrew Ng. Then those metrics are analyzed when that same phrase is typed at the beginning of each new session. The goal: to stop an impostor trying to take a test for another student.

Eric Rabkin, a University of Michigan English professor who taught a science-fiction class with about 40,000 students for Coursera, had his students mark each other's papers. Online class chat rooms quickly lit up with complaints of plagiarism. In another Coursera class, a student was expelled for posting the answers to a test online. What makes the cheating remarkable is that the stakes were so low—neither class was eligible for academic credit.

Cheating can be limited, Prof. Rabkin said, but it will take scrutiny by teaching assistants and that will cost money. "In the future, I think we are going to have to give up the fiction that it's free," Mr. Rabkin said. "Someone is going to have to pay."

Satia Renee, a 50-year-old unemployed administrative assistant from Smyrna, Ga., who took Prof. Rabkin's class and graded 40 papers from her classmates, said at least four were plagiarized.

"People lifted whole sections from SparkNotes and from other people's Ph.D. dissertations," she said, referring to online study guides.

In another MOOC she took run by a University of Pennsylvania professor, a half-dozen teaching assistants shepherded student discussion online and cheating was much less pervasive, she said.

One solution from a college looking to tap into the MOOC trend: remove the incentive to cheat. Georgia State University said last month that it would accept credit for some classes offered by Coursera, but the grade won't be factored into a student's grade-point average. And before students will be awarded credit, they will have to pass a test to prove they have mastered the material.

"It takes cheating out of the equation," said Tim Renick, the school's associate provost for academic programs. "It removes the issue of trust."

Cathy Cheal, senior academic technology officer at San Jose State University in California, which recently accepted several MOOCs for credit, said the key to avoiding cheating online is to structure courses so students are constantly engaged and have to answer questions every few minutes. That way, she said, cheating becomes more trouble than it is worth.

EdX, a MOOC affiliated with six schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has teamed up with Pearson Vue, a test-proctoring company. On Wednesday it offered the first proctored final exam for its "Circuits and Electronics" course. About 300 of the roughly 46,000 students who took the class with an MIT professor filed into test-taking centers around the world in the hopes of earning a "proctored honor certificate" from the class signed by the professor. Students who pass the exam online will receive only an "honor certificate."

Both Udacity, another MOOC provider, and Coursera have teamed up with an online test-taking company called Proctor U that pays employees in Alabama and California to monitor test takers through a webcam trained on the student's face.

Before every test begins, the proctor asks the test taker to pan the room with their web camera, said Jarrod Morgan, a vice president at Proctor U. During that sweep, proctors see all sorts of things: answers on Post-it Notes taped to the computer screen, another person sitting in the room, a second laptop open to Google.

If a test taker is continually looking away from the computer, the proctors gently remind them: "Please keep your eyes on the screen," Mr. Morgan said. "We can't stop cheating but we can make it pretty hard."


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