Ethics of MOOCs

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses were supposed to be the next big thing in post-secondary education, providing free courses to the masses. Universities would have to adapt or risk losing their students. They have certainly grown and evolved in the last few years, but have failed to gain as much traction as some expected.

In 2012, Harvard and MIT started a collaboration that became EdX, which is today the largest provider of free MOOCs. They boast courses from well-respected university partners around the world, including UBC.

In this article, Jane Robbins reminds us that EdX is not an educational institution itself. Students of its courses are not students of any educational institution (even though they are taking a course designed and run by faculty at a university). EdX is not automatically bound by the ethical policies students likely expect when taking a course from e.g. UBC (There may be provisions for that, but I don’t know the nature of the agreement between partner institutions and EdX).

As an online education provider, EdX has access to a huge trove of data regarding online education and business. Their privacy policy does lay out what can and can’t be done with that information, but it is unlikely that most students read that. EdX does participate in research, but as Robbins suggests, they may not be subject to the ethical research policies that partner institutions would be bound to when using their own students (even of in-house online courses).

I have no reason to question EdX’s motives. I don’t necessarily think that they will go as far down the big data bath as Robbins suggests they could. It is interesting however, that an educational giant (they boast “33 million+” students), with well-respected universities as partners, is not necessarily bound by the ethics we expect in the field of education. I was unable to find any public mention of the nature of the relationship with partner universities or of an EdX ethics policy.

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