MOOCs Teething Problems: Quality and Plagiarism

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It seems as if the beautiful new world of MOOCs just got the first few scratches on its shiny surface this week.

Udacity Pulls One Of Its Math Courses

On August 21, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Udacity canceling one of it math courses, Logic and Discrete Mathematics.

It is noteworthy to mention that the course in question was not live yet, so no students were harmed by poor quality or other issues, although it must have been a great disappointment for the students who had planned to enroll in the course for sure. Udacity made this decision with the assistant professor who designed and recorded the course in Udacity’s California studios.

Having both taught live online and regularly uploading video lectures on YouTube myself, I agree with the professor in that online courses require a completely new way of teaching and presenting certain concepts. On the other hand, I must say that I’m astonished, as it’s not Udacity’s first course offering. In their recent experience, they must have accumulated some knowledge about how to execute a course. Also, unlike Khan Academy, Udacity was never a one-(wo)man-show, but has highly skilled teams and sustainable funding to support their efforts. It’s more than a little surprising that they pulled back from a course after the professor spent hours and hours preparing, and after Udacity founder Thrun confirmed they were giving it its finishing touches.

A little late to pull the trigger, isn’t it? Of course, one might also play devil’s advocate and say better late than not at all – and leave students with a poorly designed class. We shall see, maybe Udacity comes up with a revised version a little later.

Plagiarism Strikes

On August 22, Gigaom published an article about the other darling of the MOOC industry, Coursera, which seems to be faced with some cases of plagiarism.

“Dozens” of plagiarism cases reported by both students and teachers on the platform don’t sound too alarming when we take the total number of students enrolled into account (Coursera recently claimed to have just reached one million students).

That said, it seems to be worrisome enough to make Coursera introduce a so-called “honor code reminder,” which students have to read first and agree to before they hand in certain assignments.

Depending on the severity and scale of these incidents, Coursera might want to continue pursuing plagiarism detection tools. Such tools already exist today and are in use already. It might have been a little naive of the Coursera founders to not adequately prepare for potential widespread plagiarism issues right from the start.

Albeit all enthusiasm and likely 80% honest and dedicated students, there are always those who think they’re particularly smart and won’t get caught. And since the MOOCs are free (and everything happens online with no face-to-face relationship with the teacher), the temptation to cheat might be bigger online. I have been working in online education since 2007 and it’s clear that Udacity and Coursera are having teething troubles in a newly and rapidly emerging segment of the online education market.

That said, both issues are such obvious problems that I have to ask myself why both teams have not invested at least some of their funding into either experienced online education consultants that could help prepare them for quality and plagiarism issues.

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