When I was a student I knew a few guys who almost never went to lectures and spent most of term either asleep or in the bar. Then a couple of weeks before the exam they suddenly burst into action, borrowed friends' notes and assorted books and then scraped through the test. I imagine there are still people like that at most universities. They didn't learn much but they had worked out the secret of knowing enough to pass the exam. It worked at least for the first two years but I've no idea how they got on after that. Hopefully they woke up and got involved when the course began to get more interesting. The reason I bring this up is to show that some people have always tried to take shortcuts, even on campus courses, and that this is not a problem exclusive to online education as many people try to make us believe. Some courses, both face-to-face and online, make it too easy to take shortcuts and not surprisingly many people are happy to capitalize.
A couple of articles in Inside Higher Ed sparked off this train of thought. Firstly one about cheating in some MOOCs, Multiple Personalities, Disorder, where researchers from Harvard and MIT have discovered that some participants were using multiple registrations to find out the right answers to the tests. Many courses use multiple choice tests to assess progress and when you have completed the test you can see the answers. So once you've seen the answers using your fake identity you simply log in as yourself and pass the test. If you make it so easy to cheat then it's no surprise that some people do. These types of self-correction tests are fine for helping students to grasp basic concepts and as a quick memory check but they should not be used as criteria for awarding certificates.
Secondly an investigation into the shortcomings of introductory courses provided by non-traditional education providers, General Ed Cheap and Easy. There are a number of online educational companies that have set up MOOC-like courses and the article shows how easy it is to get certificates and in some cases the opportunity to be awarded university credits without having understood so much. Once again the courses basically packaging content and then asking you if you remember what was in unit 2. The author tried a course in marketing and was able to get good results despite very little knowledge of the subject and without having to read too much.
Through inferring the correct answers, lucky guesswork, and trial and error, I completed 40 of the course’s roughly 240 units. I have a perfect score in all but two. I have never taken a course or worked in marketing.
This type of content delivery and memory testing can of course help you get a very broad grasp of a subject, just like reading a book or watching a few lectures. But the worrying thing is that some of these courses are getting accredited and can lead to you being awarded university credits. There's a lot of discussion about the unbundling of education and the promise of non-traditional providers and alternative paths to learning. I have written enthusiastically on this many times here and believe there is huge potential here, if managed carefully. However we have to be wary of courses that merely offer simple information transfer and superficial testing and not confuse these with courses that promote real learning and force learners to discuss, question, rethink and come to their own conclusions. Learning means digging below the surface of facts, figures and multiple choice tests. Many new providers have very slick and convincing marketing to show that they are more flexible, learner-centred, effective and enjoyable than traditional education. The sirens sing very enchantingly.
Some providers deliver what they promise but many are simply old wine in shiny new bottles. Some are pure bluff, verging on degree mills and suchlike. The problem is that they reinforce the view that this is typical of online education. The online element does make it easier to set up less professional operations but bad practice is not simply connected to form of delivery. When well designed and professionally run, online education can be as interactive, challenging and engaging as any face-to-face course. Those who offer accreditation need to learn how to see through the smokescreen and tell the serious professional providers from the rest. It's also our responsibility to become more discerning students and learn how to filter out the buzzwords and glossy surface.