Leaders of Coursera, an upstart company offering free online courses by professors at well-known universities, this week added a feature designed to curb incidents of student plagiarism on homework assignments.
The move comes just days after an article in The Chronicle reported that many students were suspected of cheating on homework in Coursera’s Massive Open Online Courses, even though the classes, known as MOOC’s, offer no academic credit.
The step is a small one, but it was carried out with the start-up company’s signature swiftness. Students in Coursera’s courses must now renew their commitment to its academic honor code every time they submit an essay assignment for grading by peers.
Specifically, they must check a box next to this sentence: “In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.”
Only a few courses that are now under way include essay assignments, so just three courses are affected (though tens of thousands of students are enrolled in each one). Officials say they may add the honor-code prompt to other types of assignments in the future. Students in all Coursera courses already agree to its honor code when they sign up for classes.
“A large part of the plagiarism arises from lack of understanding of the expected standards of behavior in U.S. academic institutions, especially among students who have not been trained in such institutions,” said Daphne Koller, a co-founder of the company and a Stanford University professor, in an e-mail interview. “We believe that this language will be quite helpful.”
The company has said that it will investigate how widespread are reports of plagiarism on assignments, though Ms. Koller said she suspects it resembles the level of plagiarism in traditional on-campus courses.
She cited one indication from an earlier Coursera course, taught by the Princeton University sociology professor Mitchell Duneier: About 2,500 midterms were graded by hand by teaching assistants, who estimated that about 5 percent contained suspected plagiarism. Ms. Koller stressed that that is a “rough estimate,” but added that “it doesn’t seem that high.”
Indeed, surveys conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity have found that as much as 43 percent of undergraduates on traditional campuses reported engaging in “unauthorized collaboration” on homework.