The Coursera Signature Track Experience

April 2013: I decided to try out a Coursera Signature Track course. I (and others) question if a “verified certificate” is really worth it, but regardless I thought it would be interesting to examine just how Coursera “verifies” whether a student did indeed complete his or her own work.

Since UPenn’s Gamification course by Kevin Werbach was highly rated last Fall and available at a discounted price of $39, I decided to indulge.

Until I registered, I pondered how exactly Coursera would profile a student’s biometric signature for written assignments. My personal hypothesis was that they would track everything entered into text boxes for the written assignments, however this would make it impossible to write answers outside of the Coursera site, and impossible to grade the typical multiple choice quizzes. Apparently, that’s not the way Coursera’s system works at all.

Rather, you authenticate yourself via a text entry, a web photo of yourself, and a web photo of your photo ID (I used a driver’s license) when you first register. Then, a similar window will pop up after every quiz, assignment, or exam submission asking you to type the text and snap your own photo:

At the end of this Signature Track Gamification course, I’ll have definitely (maybe) mastered typing the sentence: I certify this submission as my own original work completed in accordance with the Coursera Honor Code.

Before the end, I’ll also have to try testing the system by asking others to type the sentence for me, or trying to use images of myself for the webcam photo. Hopefully my attempts to test the authentication system won’t disqualify me from ultimately receiving my verified certificate. If so, I hope I can at least capitalize on their lenient, but fair refund policy.

Regardless of how my own experiments turn out, this system is not without its flaws. It can easily be circumvented by merely giving your login credentials to another test-taker and having them “Save Answers”. Then the registered student can login again and just “Submit Answers” anytime before the deadline.

Despite my light bashing of the authentication system, I do believe this is a step in the right direction for Coursera and MOOCs in general. Verification of a student’s work is crucial, however, I hope a goal is to ultimately make “verification” universal and free of charge. At least Coursera is offering Financial Aid for those who need it for now. As for me, I’m more than willing to pay my small share to “play with the system” and fund Coursera’s biometric keystroke tracking R&D.