Of Plagiarism and MOOCs

A colleague involved in developing a FYC MOOC wrote to ask me my opinion of how much plagiarism might happen in the course. The colleague referenced last August’s Chronicle article on cheating in Coursera courses and was clearly wanting me to say, “No, it won’t be a problem.” 

I think it will be a problem, and here’s my explanation, quoted from that conversation:

As I understand it, there actually are stakes for students in non-credit-bearing MOOCs, in that Coursera and other proprietors actually connect successful students with prospective employers. Any time cultural capital that is readily convertible to economic capital is involved, there will be cheating. I have no idea, though, how widespread it might be in the course you’ll be teaching. 

Last semester I taught a course on Crimes of Writing to writing majors at Syracuse. We spent a lot of time on the various sorts of ghostwriting. As the students talked candidly, I discovered that more than half of them had ghostwritten papers for other students. One was engaged in it extensively and making quite a good income at it. And this ghostwriting was being done for in situ classes. I would have to think it would be far more extensive in DE or a MOOC.

But that’s all hypothesis, based on scattered evidence. As I’m now involved in data-driven research, I’m discovering how far off the mark the hypotheses of pedagogical “experts” can be.

I’m not being coy when I say “this is just a guess, and it could be wrong.” One thing the Citation Project has taught me is that my teacherly experiences (such as the conversation in Crimes of Writing) and my reading about other scholars’ experiences and opinions—all of it inevitably colored by media sensationalizing the topic of plagiarism, especially as related to students, and most especially in digital environments—really doesn’t matter much until it is intersected with data-driven research. Who knows, for example, the extent to which the writing majors in my class were gilding the lily, engaging in a bit of braggadocio, testing the waters to see how their classmates or professor would react, taking on the role of daring risk-taker in a risk-free environment?

I should also confess that I’m a little uncomfortable with finding myself in the position of predicting plagiarism problems—uncomfortable given that I’m usually in the role of talking educators down from fetishizing plagiarism. A focus on plagiarism gets educators away from teaching writing. And good teaching of writing is essential to providing students with tools and practices that give them the option of not plagiarizing and nevertheless succeeding.

Yet my opinion persists, as a hypothesis and nothing more. The more students and faculty are removed from a relationship with each other, a feeling of shared responsibility, the less obligation students feel to the instructor and to the instructor’s inconvenient ethical ideals.