In writing my recent article on massive open online courses, I talked with the leaders of the Big Three in the nascent industry — Coursera, edX, and Udacity — and they all stressed the importance of large-scale data collection and analysis to their plans. By meticulously tracking the actions of students, they hope to build large behavioral data bases that can then be mined for pedagogical insights. The findings, they believe, will help improve particular classes as well as bolster our general understanding of teaching and learning.
The MOOCs’ research agenda seems entirely wholesome. But it does raise some tricky ethical issues, as a correspondent from academia pointed out to me after my article appeared. “At most institutions,” he wrote, the kind of behavioral research the MOOCs are doing “would qualify as research on human subjects, and it would have to be approved and monitored by an institutional review board, yet I have heard nothing about that being the case with this new adventure in technology.” Universities are, for good reason, very careful about regulating, approving, and monitoring biological and behavioral research involving human subjects. In addition to the general ethical issues raised by such studies, there are strict federal regulations governing them. I am no expert on this subject, but my quick reading of some of the federal regulations suggests that certain kinds of purely pedagogical research are exempt from the government rules, and it may well be that the bulk of the MOOC research falls into that category.
Nevertheless, given the sensitivities involved, you’d think that schools partnering with the MOOC providers, particularly the for-profit providers, would be giving the research programs a thorough review and demanding some kind of ongoing oversight. Yet if you look at the contract between the University of Michigan and Coursera, a contract that Coursera says is similar to the ones it has with other institutions, you find almost nothing about data and research. There is a section (#14) establishing basic confidentiality safeguards for student data (names, email addresses, test scores), but it doesn’t say anything about research. The only other thing I saw was a short note in an exhibit appended to the contract, which says that Coursera “will administer assessments and make available to University certain aggregate analytics regarding End User behavior and performance, which will include information on any of the following: End User demographics, module usage, aggregate assessment scores (stratified by demographics) and reviews by demographics.” I saw nothing about any review, oversight, or restriction of research programs or of the use of the resulting data.
I also glanced through Coursera’s terms of service. They lay out, in broad terms, the “personal” and “non-personal” information that the company will collect from students. The personal information is mainly used for formal communications with students. The non-personal information is what’s collected for research and other purposes:
Coursera says it will use the information “in aggregate form to build higher quality, more useful services by performing statistical analyses of the collective characteristics and behavior of our users, and by measuring demographics and interests regarding specific areas of our Site.” But then the company also notes, “We may also use it for other business purposes.” That sounds like carte blanche.
I have no reason to think that Coursera, or any other MOOC, has anything but noble intentions when it comes to data collection and data mining. I certainly believe that the leaders of the companies are motivated by a desire to improve education. But Coursera is a for-profit business, backed by venture capitalists. Sooner or later, it will have to make money, and, given the current excitement in Silicon Valley and elsewhere about the commercial potential of “Big Data,” it seems inevitable that the company and its investors will explore “other business purposes” for its data, including ones that would bring in revenues.
In their excitement to join forces with MOOC providers, university administrators and professors may not be giving enough thought to all the data that’s going to be collected and all the research activities that are going to be pursued. It’s an oversight they may come to regret.