The MOOC Certificate Paradox

As I’m starting to review some of the courses that I’ve taken, one of my goals is to let prospective employers and admissions offices what they should think when they see a particular MOOC certificate on an applicant’s resume or application. That assessment generally consists of three parts: identity verification, assessment rigor, and content coverage.

Generally, few current MOOC providers feature sufficient verification to make the certificate all that impactful. Coursera’s identity verification, for example, provides no evidence that the student completed the work instead of receiving it from a friend or a database online. Solutions exist to both the problems of identity verification and plagiarism, but thus far, I have not seen many (well, any) MOOC platforms use them.

In the short term, that’s not a major problem. These certificates aren’t yet powerful enough to bother cheating on them. If I’m not going to get significant credit on a job or school application for completing a course, why bother cheating to complete it? This sets up what I call the MOOC Certificate Paradox: the value of a MOOC’s certificate is inversely proportional to the value of the MOOC’s certificate.

How can that be possible? So long as the certificate has no value, we can infer that students only complete it for personal improvement and learning. So long as we can believe they only complete the MOOC for personal improvement and learning, we can attach value to their completion of the MOOC: we know they were not simply earning the credit to improve their resume or application because earning the credit wouldn’t improve their resume or application. Thus, the certificate has value. But if the certificate has value, there emerges an incentive to earn it specifically to obtain that value. We no longer know that they were not simply earning the credit to improve their resume or application because now earning the credit does improve their resume or application. Thus, the value of the certificate diminishes when its value increases. The value of a MOOC’s certificate is contingent on it not having inherent value.

However, this stands in opposition to what I believe to be the function of Verified Certificates and other similar certification programs: to make the course mean something.  Verified Certificates attempt to attach value to MOOC completion, but in the absence of firmer measures to verify students’ identities and prevent plagiarism, that value cannot arise: the moment it arises, it diminishes as an incentive to cheat (as well as an absence of any reliable way to identify cheaters) is introduced.

Of course, there is a way to break out of this paradox: there must be more rigorous methods to verify identities. Quizzes and exams in MOOCs need to be legitimately proctored. All submissions need to be automatically checked for plagiarism. The presence of these measures will provide inherent value to MOOCs rather than value that is dependent on the student’s motives.

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