Students taking free online courses offered by the startup company Coursera have reported dozens of incidents of plagiarism, even though the courses bear no academic credit. This week a professor leading one of the so-called Massive Open Online Courses posted a plea to his 39,000 students to stop plagiarizing, and Coursera's leaders say they will review the issue and consider adding plagiarism-detection software in the future.
In recent weeks, students in at least three Coursera humanities courses have complained of plagiarized assignments by other students. The courses use peer grading, so each student is asked to grade and offer comments on the work of fellow students.
"I just graded my second batch of peer essays and was saddened to find one of them was lifted from Wikipedia," wrote one student in the discussion forums for the course, "Fantasy and Science Fiction."
Many students in the discussion expressed surprise that their peers would resort to fraudulent behavior in a noncredit course. Students who complete a course can get a certificate attesting to that accomplishment, but so far the courses do not count for credit at any university.
Still, some students argued that even in noncredit situations, stamping out plagiarism is important. "This cheating hurts everyone who is trying to take part in this class and learn with integrity," wrote one student in the discussion forums.
Meanwhile, professors teaching the courses say they are worried that some students are being overly zealous in hunting for plagiarism, and at least one student complained in the forums about being accused in error.
"An accusation of plagiarism is a deeply serious act and should be made only with concrete evidence behind it," wrote the professor teaching the fantasy course, Eric S. Rabkin, in a message to students posted on Monday. His letter, clocking in at more than 1,200 words, attempted to define plagiarism, underline its importance, and convey how complicated he felt the issue could be.
A 'Teachable Moment'
In an interview this week with The Chronicle, Mr. Rabkin, who is also an English professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said he sees the plagiarism incidents as a "teachable moment." He said one student wrote him soon after he posted his letter and confessed to submitting a plagiarized essay, but the student said he had not realized that copying and pasting from other sources was wrong. The student asked that his essay be withdrawn and that he be disqualified from receiving a certificate, but Mr. Rabkin said he wrote to Coursera officials saying the student should be given a second chance.
A professor teaching a Coursera course about the history of the Internet, Charles Severance, wrote to his students this month about plagiarism as well, after several students reported in the forums that they had seen it in assignments they graded.
"If you see/suspect plagiarism—be kind and keep any of your comments about plagiarism short and to the point—do not criticize or flame the person—make sure your comments will help someone learn," he told them.
"If we really are trying to teach the world, including people from other cultures, we have to take a responsibility to educate people about plagiarism, not just vaporize people for it," said Mr. Severance, who is also a clinical associate professor of information at Michigan, in an interview on Wednesday.
Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera and a professor at Stanford University, said she planned to look into how widespread reports of plagiarism are. "I don't have a sense of whether it's more frequent than in regular classroom environments," she said on Wednesday. She noted that Coursera makes students agree to uphold an honor code when they sign up for courses, but that, in the future, assignments will include reminders that all answers must be the students' original work.
"That would clarify to students what is and isn't appropriate behavior," she said. "That will reduce the incidents considerably, I hope."
She said Coursera officials would also consider adding a software system that could automatically detect suspected plagiarism, but no decision has been made on the issue. "It depends on how common this is," she said.
One Coursera student who witnessed plagiarism in a course is Laura K. Gibbs, who is herself a lecturer teaching online literature courses at the University of Oklahoma.
She enrolled in the Coursera course on fantasy and science fiction to get a better sense of how MOOC's work, since they've been in the news so much lately as a possible way to disrupt conventional higher education. She was enthusiastic about the reading list and the rigor of the course, which asks students to spend eight to 12 hours per week on reading and homework.
"I always tell students it's six to eight hours per week, every week, and I feel lucky to get six," she said. "I was really excited that this was trying to be an upper-division humanities course."
She said she was frustrated when she read discussion posts about plagiarism, and then saw evidence of it in one of the peer assignments she graded. "It's what at my university we'd call patchwork plagiarism," she said. "I'm naïve enough that I was really surprised by that."
She complained on her blog that Coursera and the course's professor had been slow to respond to the incidents. And she argued that Mr. Rabkin's message to students did not give her enough guidance on how to respond to what seemed like clear-cut instances of plagiarism.
Ms. Gibbs stressed that she is largely enthusiastic about Coursera and the idea of free courses online, but that "it's going to take an enormous amount of work to make it work."
She noted that she sees plagiarism by her University of Oklahoma students as well, but she can intervene in such incidents because she sees all the students' work.
Another faculty member taking a Coursera course, Steven D. Krause, said he doubted that peer grading could ever work without instructors' looking at all assignments. He said he uses the technique in his writing courses at Eastern Michigan University, where he is a professor of English and coordinator of the written-communication program, but he always looks over the peer grading and checks that the students are on track. "Usually there's some sort of norming by the instructors," he said.
"The idea that this could scale as a broad substitute for higher education is, I think, ridiculous," he added. "Content scales really well—you can put all kinds of stuff out on a Web site, and millions of people can look at it. But instruction does not scale, at least to those kinds of numbers."
But Mr. Rabkin, who is teaching the Coursera course on fantasy and science fiction, argues that peer grading can work in free courses, even without direct involvement by the professor. "Sometimes the professor's grade is wrong for whatever reasons," he said.
"I'm not interested in proving this could substitute for the University of Michigan," he added. "What I'm after is seeing if we have a way of capitalizing on a large group of people with smart software and a clever system that can make a community that has guidance and can teach itself."