Plagiarism & Other Recent Issues on Coursera

Coursera quite recently implemented a new learning and assessment system and this has potential to significantly compromise the credibility of Coursera’s certificates. For one, I no longer put very high regard to Coursera’s credentials-of-learning as I used to. I will elaborate the reason and some tricks you may want to heed in taking Coursera’s courses.

Speaking about Coursera’s new learning and assessment system, two important aspects of this new system are:

  1. On courses with peer-reviewed assignments, learners can submit their assignment, review other learners’ submission, and then revise their own submission.
  2. Many courses are offered in quick succession, e.g. a new batch is opened once a month, or even once every 2 weeks, meaning there will be more than one ongoing learning group at a time.

A. Plagiarism
One excess is the increase incidents of plagiarism. It is indeed a very serious issue now. I have experienced that in one single course I run into two different learners plagiarized and forked my assignment, submitted as theirs. Utilizing the loop caused by policy no. 1 above, it is very easy for Courserians to use and fork another Courserian’s assignment they have reviewed.

To avoid becoming a victim of plagiarism and forking practices, I have a few tips for you:

  1. Submit your assignment close to the due date. Don’t submit it too early. This is very risky, especially for assignments submitted as plain text on Coursera platform.
    • There’s one other factor you may want to consider. By this new policy, Coursera allows you to resubmit your assignment once you’ve received enough review counts, so you may want to put in some buffer in case you fail a peer review so there’s time for you to redo and resubmit your assignment while minimizing the risk of it being plagiarized or forked.
  2. It is better to always submit document-based assignments, either they be requested in PowerPoint, Word, etc., as PDF. Clearly and prominently type your name and identity on every single page / slide. If necessary, put extra security measures so the bad Courserians can’t copy the text from your document.
  3. When you find a plagiarized submission, there are two things you can do:
    • Use the “flag” button on the top right corner of the peer review page to report the plagiarism.
    • Afterward, report the details of your finding to Coursera on this page.

You may want to raise an issue of plagiarism on the course’s discussion forum or to the course provider, but in my experience they’re sometimes completely useless. Some courses are not monitored at all by the university offering the course.

Also, be careful on how you handle this issue. I’ve read an instance where the bad Courserian had a chance of exacting revenge to the whistle-blower and the bad Courserian may still pass the course.

What kinds of plagiarism you may find?

  • You may find your own work plagiarized. I have experienced my own text-based submission used by at least two bad Courserians. Some Courserians have reported their own document-based submission (even PDF submissions, when the learner doesn’t clearly put their identity on the document) have been re-submitted by others.
  • You may find people pasting paragraphs from other sources either online or offline. Sometimes you may notice that some sentences or even paragraphs seem totally out of context, not connected with the previous and following elements of the submission.
  • Some assignments simply contain gibberish contents. This is probably something collated from several different sources or machine-translated.

In case you wonder: yes, I have read this plagiarism issue being reported even on a capstone project!

B. Reviewer Competency
Another issue you may find on courses with peer-reviewed assignments is the reviewer competency. I have found this to be a grave reason for complaints for a number of competent Courserians when their assignments are reviewed by ignorant and less-than-competent reviewers.

Do realize that not every reviewer has proper mastery of English and many – as should be expected – are learners who are not so familiar with the content of the course, but keep in mind also that not every reviewer has proper level of humility and generosity in alignment with their lack of competency.

Some issues I have encountered are:

  • A reviewer cannot watch a video submission because of his/her computer issue, then this reviewer gave a “0” to the submission, all the while admitting that he/she has not watched the video at all. From what I knew, the learner didn’t manage to appeal this score – both to the course provider and course provider – and had only two options: accept the very low final score or retake the course.
  • I myself have also experienced having one element of my task scored as “0” by 2 out of 3 reviewers for not submitting “a max. 2-minute video or a max. 1,000-word Word document” all the while I submitted a Word document with 890-word answer (with the retyped questions and self identity, the word-count adds up to 1,037 words).

Issues like these two are very annoying and there’s nothing you can do about it. My tips in preventing these are:

  1. After you read the assignment instruction carefully and understand it, read also the scoring guidelines. Remember, when a Courserian (including you yourself) review an assignment, probably you’ll compare it not to the proper instructions but to your own work and in the end you will have to score it based on the scoring guidelines.
  2. Make sure your submission is dumb-proof. That being said, make sure that the Courserians who will review your assignment has zero knowledge of the topic and only has the scoring questions that will guide their scoring decisions.
  3. Make sure the systematics of your assignments closely follow that of the scoring guidelines, thus easing the mental burden of the reviewers when they have to put score on your assignment, element by element.
  4. If necessary (it often is), provide very clear visual cues that match the structure of your assignment to the scoring guidelines. A case in point, I once submitted an assignment that received a failing score (I think it was around 60%). What I did?
    • I checked the guiding questions for the reviewers.
    • I copied them and pasted exactly the same to my assignment, including the question numbers (1. Identify …, 2. Explain …, 3. Explain …, etc.) and format them as bold.
    • I divided my long paragraphs and points into those sections, so when the reviewer open my document, they would easily and clearly see that this document is perfectly mapped to their scoring guidelines.
    • I resubmitted the document, barely touching the content, for I’m sure of its quality.
    • What happened? My 60% score jumped to … yeah, 100%.

That’s if for now. I hope these tips work for you. Got comments or questions? Want to share some of your own experience? Feel free to write below or use this page to write me.

You can help raise awareness of these issues by sharing this post to your social network also. Let’s hope that Coursera will be more responsive of these grave concerns plaguing their service.


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