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The Honor Code at Scale

Posted by on Monday, July 6, 2015 in News.

Honor codes and concepts exist in various forms at many colleges and universities. The “short form” of the Vanderbilt Honor Code Pledge, for example, reads

“I pledge on my honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this examination.” (, emphasis are mine).

A Web search suggests that the phrase “on my honor” is ubiquitous among honor code pledges at universities. In an idealized honor system, appeal to one’s honor (with respect to understood norms) would be sufficient to assure freedom from oversight on exams, homeworks, papers, and other assessments and statements. Virtually every institution with an honor code, however, has formalized procedures, often student governed, for dealing with suspected violations of the honor code. At Vanderbilt, there is a student honor council, and a prescribed process for thoroughly investigating accusations of cheating, plagiarism, and other violations of the honor code, as well as assigning penalties when it is determined that violations have occurred.

“Yet research indicates that the significantly lower levels of cheating reported at honor code schools do not reflect a greater fear of being reported or caught.  Rather, a more important factor seems to be the peer culture that develops on honor code campuses — a culture that makes most forms of serious cheating socially unacceptable among the majority of students. Many students would simply be embarrassed to have other students find out they were cheating.” New Honor Codes for a New Generation, March 11, 2005 by Donald L. McCabe and Gary Pavela (emphasis are mine)

For a massive (or self-paced), open, online, course (MOOC), it might seem an insurmountable task to monitor activities for possible honor code violations, but in fact, it seems to be that a MOOC, for reasons that would be terribly interesting to study, manifests “a culture that makes most forms of serious cheating socially unacceptable.” Learners of MOOCs seem largely to monitor themselves.

On rare occasions, accusations of cheating are made in Vanderbilt courses offered on Coursera. These Coursera-hosted courses are not credit-bearing Vanderbilt courses, and so do not fall under the Vanderbilt honor code. So for each Vanderbilt course on Coursera we use the following guidelines.

“Students of Vanderbilt University’s courses through Coursera are expected to abide by Coursera’s Honor Code ( Violators face a penalty ranging from a zero on the relevant assignment to removal from the course.  Although we hope violations of the honor code never occur, if you suspect that there has been a violation, please go to the help center (, navigate to report Copyright, abuse, or plagiarism >> report plagiarism, cheating, or an honor code violation, and submit a ticket that describes the suspected violation.” (see below for a statement of the Coursera Honor Code at time of writing)

Note that there is a well-defined, privacy-preserving procedure that is prescribed for reporting a suspected honor code violation, and Coursera has committed itself to investigating the report, with input from the course instructors and institution. If an accusation is made publicly on a course’s discussion forums, then instructional and/or Coursera staff will flag it, hide it from public view, report it through the prescribed means, and Coursera will investigate it. The post that is purportedly violating the honor code will also be hidden from view, as appropriate.

In addition to many questions about the learning sciences that can be addressed by MOOCs, these global courses beg important and interesting questions about the limits and possibilities of voluntary ethical behavior and socialization to ethical norms too!

Statement of the Coursera Honor Code:

These are the core principles and practices that represent your commitment to Coursera’s standard of academic integrity:

  • I will register for only one account.*
  • My answers to homework, quizzes, and exams will be my own work (except for assignments that explicitly permit collaboration).
  • I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes, or exams available to anyone else unless explicitly permitted by the instructor. This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any official solutions provided by the instructional staff.
  • I will not engage in any other activities that will dishonestly improve my results or dishonestly improve/hurt the results of others.

*Note that your account is linked to your email address, and by registering on our site with more than one email address, you are registering for more than one account. If you have already registered for two accounts, please contact us. (Retrieved July 6, 2015 from


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