The Risk Of Using Free Online Classes For Credit

Offering credit for free online classes opens a world of potential, especially to those who otherwise could not afford a “typical college class” yet have the will and desire to learn. However, this potential for incredible good also comes with the incredible risk of ruining nearly all MOOCs — widespread cheating.

The beauty of current MOOCs is their purity. (Nearly) everyone who is enrolled is there because they have a genuine interest in the subject matter and have a unified goal of learning. Thus, the likelihood of cheating happening in these classes is reduced since, what’s the point?  Cheating occurs when students are forced to take classes and tests that they have no real interest in and feel is irrelevant.

I am also only refering to the traditional form of cheating where one student bothers another just for the answers. There can be benefits to “cheating” as a form of “creative problem solving”, but that is a fine line and those usually aren’t the cheaters I am worried about in MOOC classes. (For an idea of what I consider “creative problem solving via cheating” you can refer to the Kobayashi Maru in Star Trek.)

Certified accreditation from these online classes would begin to throw those “cheating students” into the mix, polluting the pool of honest students who are there for the sole purpose of learning. If students are required to enroll, there will be a reason for some students to cheat because they have no real interest in the material — they are there solely to meet a prerequisite, get a raise, or for some other requirement.

The MOOCs which resemble traditional classes like Coursera and edX are particularly susceptible to various forms of “cheating” or answer trading, particularly through the forums. To their credit, I have seen fairly good regulation through deletion of inappropriate posts, and peers responding with some depth rather than just answers.

This might be a pessimistic forecast, but my biggest personal fear is that if these MOOCs lose clout because of cheating, it will be difficult to attract the best schools, professors, and lecturers to teach. Currently, that is my main draw; learning from the best.

I certainly don’t expect any college credit or degree, nor a raise at my day job. I think its foolish to expect such a direct benefit, but that doesn’t mean I don’t expect a number of indirect benefits. For example, I do believe that it will be useful if I go back to school, for I can test out of prerequisites at the school I will attend. In my job, I do expect to get a raise if I am able to apply my new-found knowledge to improve the organization. None of these indirect benefits require accreditation by the American Council on Education.