Researchers: 'Endemic' cheating strategy undermines MOOC certificates

Students create two accounts, use one to mine correct assignment answers

A new cheating strategy poses a "serious threat to the trustworthiness of MOOC certification," according to researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

For the study, researchers analyzed click-stream data from about 2 million participants in 115 MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT between fall 2012 and June 2015.

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They determined that 1% of all awarded certificates were earned via the "CAMEO strategy," in which a student creates two accounts in a MOOC, uses one to fail assignments in order to learn the correct answers, then uses those answers to complete the assignment in his or her main account.

"It is less cheating than the wholesale falsification of a certificate," the paper says.

In their analysis, the researchers looked for patterns in which one account completed an assignment and requested answers, then shortly after another account nearby completed the task correctly. Classrooms, internet cafes, and other locations where multiple students work simultaneously were excluded. 

MOOC 2.0 and Beyond: Expectations vs. Reality

The technique is "endemic to MOOC, and not something you can have in a brick-and-mortar classroom," says Isaac Chuang, paper co-author and senior associate dean of digital learning at MIT.

Most of this cheating took place outside the United States, according to the report. Just 0.4% of U.S. accounts used the CAMEO strategy, but 12% of students in Albania did. Indonesia, Serbia, China, and Colombia also had high rates, ranging from 2% to 4%.

The CAMEO rates also varied by discipline: they were the highest in government, health, and social sciences (1.3%) and lowest in computer science courses (0.1%).

How much do MOOC students really study?

Researchers suggest withholding correct answers until after assignments' due dates or randomized questions to cut down on cheating. A subset of MOOCs that employed these strategies awarded only 0.1% of certificates to learners who used the dual-account technique, compared with 1.2% in courses that did not (Thomason, "The Ticker," Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/25; Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 8/26).

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