In a previous post, I commented on the Massive Teaching course at Coursera and that something odd was happening. Either Coursera deleted the prof from the course or the prof was running some type of experiment. It now appears to be primarily the latter.
The story has now been covered by The Chronicle (here and here) and Inside Higher Ed (here). Thoughtful reflections have been provided by Rolin Moe and Jonathan Rees. Participants on Twitter have also had their say. The general consensus is that “wow, this is weird”. Coursera has deftly pushed everything back to the University of Zurich, who in turn has pushed it onto the prof, Paul-Olivier Dehaye. Commenters have been rather cruel (I know, shocking to have mean people on the internet), going so far as to question Dehaye’s sanity. OT: Favourite comment of the day: “Moocs are demonic, and unhuman.”
There is plenty of blame to go around. Dehaye has not publicly commented. Coursera very quickly washed its hands of the situation. What Dehaye did was inappropriate and might have crossed a few ethical boundaries. That’s an important angle, but not one that I want to pursue here. Three substantial concerns exist:
1. Coursera has been revealed as a house of cards in terms of governance and procedures for dealing with unusual situations. While Coursera promotes itself as a platform, something that I wrote about a few years ago, it is more Frankensteinian than functional. MOOCs were developed so quickly and with such breathless optimism that the architects didn’t pay much attention to boring stuff like foundations and plumbing. What is the governance model at Coursera? Is there anything like a due process to resolve conflicts? And a range of questions around content ownership and learner data.
I have a colleague who taught on Coursera recently. He was unable to get access to data that had previously been promised. In a university, there is a counterbalancing process to these types of conflict or disagreements. At MOOC providers, the company rules. This is fine at Facebook, but Coursera is essentially a leech on the education system – getting teaching for free while exploring new ways to monetize the process. (Wait. Doesn’t that make them the Elsevier of teaching and learning? Content and teaching free. Monetize the backend.)
My point here is that the governance structure that underpins university is lacking in MOOC providers. It is not a balanced and equitable system. There are many fissures in the MOOC model and as providers become more prominent in education these fissures will become more evident. If companies like Coursera and edX expect to be able to make decisions on behalf of faculty and partner universities, conflict is inevitable. A transparent process is required.
2. University of Zurich has an obligation and responsibility to its faculty. Where a university’s reputation and identity can be launched internationally in a MOOC, leadership should have some quality control process in place. Is the university so poorly informed about online learning that simply giving a faculty member keys to the kingdom without some guidance and direction was assumed to be a good approach? There is much blame to be shared and it should fall in the following order: 1. Coursera, 2. U of Zurich, 3. Dehaye
3. Criticism ranging from a poorly designed course to poor ethics has been directed to Paul-Olivier Dehaye. Most of it is unfair. There have been some calls for U of Zurich to discipline the prof. Like others, I’ve criticized his deception research and his silence since the course was shut down. Several days before the media coverage, Dehaye provided the following comments on his experiment:
“MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it,” Dehaye wrote. “I want to fight scientifically for the idea, yet teach, and I have signed contracts, which no one asks me about…. I am in a bind. Who do I tell about my project? My students? But this idea of the #FacebookExperiment is in itself dangerous, very dangerous. People react to it and express more emotions, which can be further mined.”
The goal of his experiment, Dehaye wrote, was to “confuse everyone, including the university, [C]oursera, the Twitter world, as many journalists as I can, and the course participants. The goal being to attract publicity…. I want to show how [C]oursera tracks you.”
There it is. His intent was to draw attention to Coursera policies and practices around data. Congrats, Paul-Olivier. Mission accomplished.
He is doing exactly what academics should do: perturb people to states of awareness. Hundreds, likely thousands, of faculty have taught MOOCs, often having to toe the line of terms and conditions set by an organization that doesn’t share the ideals, community, and egalitarianism that define universities (you can include me in that list).
The MOOC Mystery was about an academic doing what we expect and need academics to do. Unfortunately it was poorly executed and not properly communicated so the message has been largely lost. Regardless, Dehaye has started a conversation, raised a real concern, pushed buttons, and put a spotlight on unfair or opaque practices by organizations who are growing in influence in education. Yes, there are ethical concerns that need to be addressed. But let’s not use those ethical concerns to silence an important concern or isolate a needed narrative around what MOOCs are, how they are impacting higher education and faculty, and how control is being wrested from the people who are vital counter-balancing agents in society’s power structure.
Paul-Olivier – thanks. Let’s have more of this.