Why Would Someone Cheat on a Free Online Class That Doesn’t Count Toward Anything?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 20 2012 2:48 PM

Why Would Someone Cheat on a Free Online Class That Doesn’t Count Toward Anything?

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A UC Berkeley student works on her laptop

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This gives new meaning to the expression “cheaters never prosper.”

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. Follow her on Twitter.

Last week on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey R. Young reported that “dozens” of cases of plagiarism have been detected in classes offered by Coursera. While cheating is to be expected in the classroom, as students try to find a shortcut to a passing grade, it might be somewhat surprising to hear about plagiarism happening in free online classes that don’t actually count toward anything. At the moment, students enrolled in Coursera and other massive online open courses are not earning credit toward a degree.

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According to the Chronicle, many of the alleged plagiarism incidents were caught by peer reviewers—students checking one another’s work. Apparently, some Coursera class discussion boards have hosted spirited debates in which users complain about plagiarism—or, in some cases, defend it, saying that since the class isn’t for credit, what’s the big deal?

That question should be flipped: If the class isn’t for credit, why bother cheating? The answer demonstrates a significant drawback to the movement toward gamification—using game-style rewards to, say, encourage people to lose weight, recognize loyal customers or good employees, or bestow virtual badges on people who consistently contribute meaningfully to online discussions, so as to encourage them to come back and to mark the users as reliable.

Turning everyday life into a competition can motivate some to perform beyond the base line. However, gamification has its drawbacks, as Hamburg University’s Sebastian Deterding has detailed. It can lead to the pursuit of “fake achievement.” Even when the stakes are nonexistent, we want to achieve—and for some people, the sense of achievement is not diminished by the knowledge that they didn’t actually put in the work. 

Just as video gamers sometimes resort to cheat codes to get beyond a frustrating level, students who get bogged down in an assignment—or don’t want to bother with it—but who are still engaged in the coursework could easily turn to plagiarism. It’s just a way to get to the next level, the next lecture. Technically, using a cheat code while playing a game at home for fun or copy-pasting a couple of sentences from Wikipedia on a Coursera assignment doesn’t hurt anybody. But it does diminish the experience for those who are playing by the rules, as evidenced by the many Coursera students who took to their class discussion boards to complain when they uncovered instances of plagiarism. In fact, writes the Chronicle’s Young, some of the Coursera instructors thought that their students were too quick to call foul, labeling some things plagiarism that might not have been cheating at all. And in one case, a student actually confessed to having plagiarized. Who says kids today have no moral compass?

Maybe peer pressure might be the best way to keep plagiarism at bay in the new world of massive online open courses.

(Hat tip: Annie Murphy Paul)

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.