Plagiarism in MOOCs – whose loss?

I’m enrolled on a few MOOCs at the moment (no surprise there), some for work and some for personal interest. The two for personal interest are the Marine Megafauna course from Duke University on Coursera, and the University of Southampton’s Exploring the Oceans course on Futurelearn, which has just finished. I’ll do a post comparing the two approaches and platforms in another post, but what I want to talk about here is the issue of plagiarism that was flagged up in an email for the marine megafauna course recently.

The Marine Megafauna course uses peer review on written assignments, with a workflow of student X submits in the first week, student X marks five other assignments and self-assesses their own submission the following week, and then gets their marks the week after that. The assignment we had was to write a profile of a species for a general audience. There were a number of sections to the profile and the marking criteria were explicit so it was relatively easy to get high marks provided you followed the criteria and didn’t pick an obscure species that had little published research. I picked the leatherback turtle partly because its range extends into UK waters, and partly because the largest leatherback ever recorded washed ashore at Harlech in North Wales in 1988.

While I hadn’t been concerned with whether the assignments I evaluated were plagiarised or not a forum thread on plagiarism became quite animated and led to the course email. The position stated in the email was that “plagiarism is legally and morally a form of fraud”, but that “we wish to keep student evaluations focused on the substance of the assignment”. The email also states “students are not required to evaluate the plagiarism status of the assignments they receive” but then goes on to give advice about when it would be appropriate to zero mark if plagiarism is found. Initially, this made me feel uneasy, and I’ve yet to finalise my thoughts on the issue, so what follows is a little ‘thinking out loud’.

First of all, I’m talking specifically about plagiarism in MOOCs, not within higher education in general, where I have more conventional views. I have a number of questions:

  • If plagiarism is fraud, then who is being defrauded here and of what?
  • Is it appropriate to punish for plagiarism in a learning environment where there is no qualification or credential on offer (leaving aside the issue of signature track)?
  • Is it appropriate to punish for plagiarism with little or no training or guidance on what constitutes plagiarism?

The approach on Marine Megafauna mimics the processes of traditional higher education, but I would question if that’s appropriate. In traditional HE, there is a clear power structure and demarcation of roles. Students cede authority to academics and receive rewards (grades and qualifications) in return for their academic labour. A useful (although imperfect) analogy would be that of employer and employee. The employee conforms to the demands of the employer in expectation of the reward (salary) that they will receive later. In a MOOC that all goes out of the window because the analogy is closer to that of someone doing voluntary work and it becomes a lot more difficult (and ethically dubious) for the ’employer’ to criticise the ‘worker’ for something such as turning up late, for example. Likewise in MOOCs, the student is a free agent studying for reasons other than gaining a formal qualification. In the academic-student scenario there is an implied contract, and breaking the terms of that contract by presenting the work of another as your own carries penalties and punishments. But where is the contract in the MOOC? The only thing I’m receiving is the knowledge and skills I gain from the course and if I cheat, I only end up cheating myself (assuming I’m not signed up for something like specialisms or signature track). True, there is the honour code and a declaration that the work is the student’s own, but still: if plagiarism is fraud, then who is being defrauded here and of what? And what of the case where the plagiarism consists of content from wikipedia, where the content is explicitly licensed for re-use?

There is also the issue that the students had not been given any guidance on what constitutes plagiarism either as a submitting student or as a marker, probably I suspect because the course team weren’t expecting students to consider that. Student attitudes varied with some not concerned (“We’re not supposed to hunt for plagiarism”) while others were using online services to check for plagiarism. In fact, one of the reviewers of my submission gave the final feedback of “I’ve checked your text in … and had 90% originality.” But a low originality score is meaningless without context, and there were some cases where students had very little idea of what was plagiarism and what was not. One student questioned if their work would show as plagiarised because they’d typed it up into a word file before hand. Another explicitly asked if finding a match to a source that gave the size and dimensions of the animal counted as plagiarism. In other words, was quoting the basic biological facts of the animal plagiarism or not? With this level of awareness amongst students how can it be reasonable to use students to police plagiarism, however informally? And why should students have knowledge about the issue – they’re doing the course for fun or interest, with perhaps little recent experience of educational settings.

The third assignment is still to be marked. Personally, I won’t be checking for plagiarism – as one of the students on the forum said: “That’s not my call”. If a student wants to cheat themselves, that’s their loss. If the student is on signature track (which I won’t know) then they’ve paid a fee to the institution and it’s their job to check for plagiarism. E-learning is not an offline course put online, and that applies to the culture as well as the learning materials themselves.

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