coursera pper gradingWhen I was in first grade, I won an art contest among my young peers. On a white poster board, I had drawn a puppy playing with a ball and titled the work "I Love And Feed My Dog." I had added streak marks to indicate a rapid movement of the ball and stretched out the puppy's body to give the impression he was moving toward the viewer. 
In an award ceremony in front of the entire school, my teacher escorted me and my puppy picture onto the gymnasium floor to meet the principal for a ribbon. The six-foot tall suit greeted us and, as he started to hand me the bright red ribbon, took a glance at my winning art. 
Rumored to have only one working eye, he probably could not appreciate the intended perspective of the art. The principal immediately withdrew the ribbon and turned his attention to my teacher, "Are you sure this kid drew this? Did one of his parents do it for him?" 
This glass-eyed Ruler of Children evaluated the work for five seconds and immediately called a six-year-old a liar and cheat. My teacher came to my defense and convinced him that I had actually drawn the picture. Had she withered under the imposing Mr. Authority, it is hard to say what would have happened. With a finger pointed at the gym exit, Principal Meany probably would have banished me from the school forever.
I may not remember this event exactly, but when he handed down the ribbon to the three-foot tall version of me, he growled. 
Which brings me to the sixth week of my online Coursera MOOC. You can read my earlier adventures here.
After the first Data Analysis written assignment, the professor posted a notice about a concern of plagiarism. More than likely, a handful of students are using the web to share their work. 
Here's the challenge for the Coursera professor. He cannot police thousands of students and evaluate their work. He has to allow peers to review others' work and make a decision. But here is the rub: he also does not have time to evaluate whether the peers did a good job with grading. 
If a peer marks down your work claiming that he or she suspects you did not do this work on your own, you have no mechanism for appealing that grade. There are just too many students. Here are his comments:
A charge of plagiarism is a very serious accusation and should only be made on the basis of strong evidence. It is currently very difficult to prove or disprove a charge of plagiarism in the MOOC peer assessment setting. As a result, I am not expecting you to police your classmates’ work for plagiarism. You should evaluate the work of your classmates on the merits of what they have submitted. You should only mark them down if you are absolutely 100% confident that their submission constitutes an act of egregious plagiarism. I am not in a position to evaluate whether or not a submission actually constitutes plagiarism, and I will not be able to entertain appeals or to alter any grades that have been assigned through the peer evaluation system. 
So imagine a peer reviews your work and thinks, "You could not have done this alone! I'm giving you little cheat a piece of my mind and failing you on this assignment." Your evaluator points a bony finger to the door and sends you out into the street, dragging your poster board behind you and crushing your dreams for a red ribbon.
In a MOOC, your teacher is not there to defend you. The Coursera professor is too busy; there are too many students. You have no recourse on Coursera.  
Or maybe not. It would seem that if Coursera is to be taken seriously, they would need a fair grading process and formal mechanism for appealing decisions. After all, not all of the students are above average. The same people who are getting bad grades are also assigning grades.

Coursera announced there are now 2.7 million people enrolled in their courses. Would you trust your college grade to be crowd-sourced by a random sampling of millions of people around the world? 
Just like my one-eyed principal was not a fair art judge, neither would be all of your peers in a MOOC.