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I signed up randomly for an online course that seems to consist mostly of teaching ML at the moment. I wasn't paying much attention to the community there for the longest time, but recently it suddenly occur­red to me that I might put my newly acquired knowledge to work by attempting to answer a couple of ques­tions about ML on StackOverflow.

So I hit the tag and was pleasantly surprised to find a good volume of questions. However, when I opened one after the other, they all looked extremely familiar. Turns out that lots of people from the course seem to have thought of SO before me, and for the opposite reasons! (Allegedly the traffic for that tag started skyrocketing a few weeks ago.)

This has since been brought up in the forum of the course, and while the consensus was immediately that this was unacceptable behaviour, someone also mentioned that a while ago people were using SO during an online exam at MIT, and that allegedly SO informed the university of this later. I wanted to ask how true that is, and whe­ther that's a standing policy. If yes, then I'd like to earmark that the course will have an online exam some time in the two next weeks. Is there anything I should be doing if I spot an obvious exam question?

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Doubt it. If anything, SE doesn't even cooperate with schools since it's not SE's job to police these things. – Mysticial Feb 6 '13 at 23:46
@Mysticial: I wasn't expecting it, either. I mainly wanted to confirm whether there has been a precedent for this. After all, the course organizers can always check SO themselves. – Kerrek SB Feb 6 '13 at 23:47
They hand over some of your blood work and full social security number for US schools – random Feb 6 '13 at 23:47
This is not new. Just answer the question two hours after it was posted ;) – Uphill Luge Feb 7 '13 at 0:31
OT: Nice profile picture! – Blorgbeard Feb 7 '13 at 2:50
up vote 6 down vote accepted

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say absolutely not. While Stack Exchange does cooperate with educational institutions in cases involving DMCA take downs, that's always been the extent of it. Stack Exchange has always been quite clear that it will not divulge personal information about its users in the absence of a court order.

Now, that doesn't prevent users from noticing blatant cheating and reporting it, and that would be a much more likely scenario. In order to report it, you'd need to:

  • Realize that it was cheating
  • Be able to figure out what institution / instructor was giving the exam

At that point, a professor would need to correlate the individual taking the exam to the individual getting 'help' on Stack Overflow. They don't get help from Stack Exchange or the moderation team to do that. Cheaters aren't usually the smartest variety of humans, so I'm sure there have been cases where identities were easily revealed by what was posted publicly.

There was a case where a professor gave their students explicit permission to use Stack Overflow as a resource for an assignment, and it went horribly wrong. But in this case, it was us, the moderation team that reached out to the professor in an effort to get it to stop and not repeat in the future. At the point that we contacted the professor it was about what blew up into an event, not a specific user.

I've also seen an instance where a professor explicitly allow students to use Stack Overflow during exams, and later come back to vocally regret his decision. That happened recently, however the 'answers' that voiced the complaints were converted to comments, which makes finding them a little more work than I want to put into this answer.

But, at no time did SEI actually alert an institution to academic dishonesty or assist one in identifying a user, at least to my knowledge.

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Addendum: Deprecation of the homework tag is also a very clear signal that we'd rather not segregate questions asked in the pursuit of studies at all. We'd much rather that the questions be a good fit without the additional meta context. We really don't care if you're doing your homework or taking an exam, just give us something reasonably well written and useful, that you have the legal right to give us. – Tim Post Feb 7 '13 at 1:13
Yeah, and if you're a doofus and use Stack Overflow to cheat, it's really none of our business. You're only hurting yourself. – Robert Harvey Feb 7 '13 at 1:22
Besides, there's barely enough hours in each day to mind our own business, ya know? – Tim Post Feb 7 '13 at 1:23
I know that I've contacted professors when students of theirs became real problems by dumping piles of terrible do-my-homework questions. Of course, no personal information was used to identify any users or even the course involved. These students usually left behind class numbers, code containing the teacher's name, or even links to the assignments in their question (sadly, a few of the linked assignments had clear "no online cheating" rules right on the same page). – Brad Larson Feb 7 '13 at 2:11
However, I should say that you probably shouldn't flag us for incidents of cheating you see, unless the questions are otherwise terrible or causing other problems on the site. If the questions are technically solid and would otherwise fit here, it's not on us to enforce a university's honor code. – Brad Larson Feb 7 '13 at 2:14
@BradLarson Incidents of cheating are generally flagged incidentally anyway. Quality, comment, duplicate content flags are almost always associated with those types of questions. Lately, we've seen classmates checking up on classmates as well. So yeah, no need to flag, these almost always end up on our radar anyway. – Tim Post Feb 7 '13 at 2:24
OK, that makes sense, thanks! So I take it there is not even some kind of blanket statement like "questions from your exam have surfaced on our website", either? Given how smoothly everything else works on SE, though, I'd expect the self-policing nature of our community to deal with such situations appropriately. – Kerrek SB Feb 7 '13 at 9:02
@KerrekSB There's nothing preventing one of our users from detecting possible dishonesty. It's happened outside of academia during programming contests in the past. But, the operative words here are one of our users. There is no effort by SE Inc to patrol this and report it, and believe me when I say that moderators have more than enough on their plate to care. If cheating is brought to light, its probably because a professor searched, or someone in our community connected some dots. – Tim Post Feb 7 '13 at 9:55

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