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Harvard, MIT researchers find cheating in online courses

Something didn’t seem right. As two researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pored over piles of data collected from people around the world enrolled in free online classes, their radar went up.

Certain users were answering test questions “faster than humanly possible.” Turns out, the users were cheating.

With more digging and a new algorithm, the two scientists discovered that hundreds of learners were skirting the system by using multiple accounts to cheat on tests for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Users would take a test with one account and find the wrong answers, the scientists said, then use another account to take it again and plug in the right answers, “lickety-split.”

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“[Cheating] is a well-known issue in academics, and it’s happening in new ways in online settings,” said Isaac Chuang, of MIT, who recently published a working paper with Andrew Ho, of Harvard.

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Curtis Northcutt, a graduate student at MIT, also worked on this research.

Harvard and MIT launched the edX startup three years ago, and the free, online courses are wildly popular. Users from around the world can now study everything from medieval liturgy to computer science, and earn certificates.

MOOCs currently enroll 5 million people, and other universities have joined edX and other similar ventures.

Chuang, a professor of electrical engineering and physics and a senior associate dean of digital learning, and Ho, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, analyzed data from 1.9 million course participants in 115 Harvard and MIT MOOCs from 2012 to 2015. They found 69 courses in which users appeared to have cheated using the multiple-profile method, known as CAMEO cheating (copying answers using multiple existences online).

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They found that 1.3 percent of certificates earned — a total of 1,237 certificates — appear to have been obtained through that type of cheating, a percentage they said is small, but significant, and a pattern Ho called “wholesale falsification of a certificate.”

Just as MOOCs are a first-of-their-kind type of learning, this type of “evil twin” cheating is a first, they said, and professors are still trying to understand its implications and how to combat it.

The paper includes suggestions such as randomizing questions and not releasing answers until after assignments are due. Researchers said they want to make sure any anticheating strategy doesn’t compromise learning.

“We seek to reduce the potential for cheating, but we also try to maximize the opportunities for learning,” Ho said.

Cheating was more prevalent among users who earned 20 or more certificates, they found, where 25 percent of users appeared to have cheated. It was also more prevalent on government, health, and social science courses, rather than in science, technology, and math classes, the researchers found.

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Cheating was highest among young, less-educated males outside the United States, they found, something they said could correlate with the perceived value of the certificate in different countries.

While Ho and Chuang want to stop the cheating, they are equally interested in the benefits of this new type of online education. MOOCs have the most users in the United States and India, they said, and Chinese participation is on the rise.

Thirty percent of recent MOOC participants the pair surveyed said they were teachers, taking the courses to better their own teaching.

“There is great potential here,” Chuang said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.

Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted the name of an MIT graduate student who worked on the research.