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The Ethics of MOOCs
March 25, 2013 - 7:47pm

Like any cross between former entrepreneur, teacher of ethics and innovation, and higher ed scholar, I have been following the MOOC movement closely.  It is, of course, a movement, with its own brand of evangelism and technological and demographic shock and awe. But it is also an idea whose time may have come, not so much because the concept of online education is new, but because of the adjacent possible of internet streaming, tracking, and other underlying technology, and the related near-implosion of the traditional, increasingly unsustainable, model of the university as quasi-state. The question is whether it can itself find a sustainable model. We won’t know for a while—as I remind my students, disruptions rarely become dominant designs. We certainly do not have a dominant design for MOOCs yet, as we are currently mired in the era of ferment of competing ideas and experiments.

So the question of the ethics of MOOCs is, like MOOCs themselves, something of a moving target. In their earliest incarnation, MOOCs reminded me of nothing so much as the old-time community college, or the best of big-city adult education:  cheap (in this case, free); open to all comers; populated by a diverse mixture of the curious, the self-improving, and the job-skill-enhancing; generally taught by qualified (often outstanding), committed faculty; a free-form educational resource to be dipped in and out of according to need or want. The emphasis was on “community” writ large, and the claim that MOOCs represented a similarly democratizing and flexible educational form seemed warranted; what greater public good than free, ready-to-hand, quality education and training for anyone who wants it, when they want it?

Like community colleges, however, MOOCs have—rather quickly—changed, and continue to. They retain their indifference to admission criteria (for now, although there is some movement toward elite MOOCs) and to retention, which means they don’t really care about whether students complete or not—but they do care about who completes, and why (or why not), and perhaps what can (or cannot) be successfully taught this way.  And here is where we begin to see the morphing of the mission of MOOCs, away from egalitarian education and certainly the bizarre “completion agenda” toward. . .well, we don’t know yet, as MOOCs are still in search of a business model. But we can begin to see some options in how, currently, MOOCs are conceiving of the concept of value creation.

Let’s take for illustration EdX, the joint venture between MIT and Harvard.  At the moment it is like a big research project, with the special benefit of not having to get IRB approval and informed consent, search or pay for research participants, or worry about pesky privacy regulations that may not apply under strict definitions of eligibility and what is or is not an institution of higher education.  EdX is a .org, not a .edu, and students taught in MOOCs by university professors are not students of that university. EdX does not employ professors as professors; they are not an institution of higher education, or school. Not sure anyone has noticed this small fact about MOOCs.

We can begin to see what the results of this research might be used for by looking at the EdX privacy policy: for publication; for integration with third-party services; for “sharing” with the public, researchers, and business partners and affiliates. The information on students could be transferred if, e.g., EdX is sold, acquired, “reorganized” (which could include its legal structure), merged, etc.  EdX, like Facebook, could make its money by selling its analytics to others (and, like Facebook, become under constant pressure to redesign services in the interests of those customers, not the “users”). It could become, in essence, a technology-based data company, not a school, with a similar set of inputs—the individual data of everyone who uses their free service—and numerous subscription or custom information services for a wide range of companies and government agencies willing to pay for information that will allow them to create and sell their own products, services, and policies. Or it could become a publishing company (of materials, courses, videos for purchase by schools, firms, individuals), or education’s version of a contract research organization, serving governments, corporations, and universities with lucrative contracts. And of course, provide paid placement services to companies that can reduce the vast recruiting risk and save companies lots of other recruiting expense:  who are the quick learners who do well on the first try? Exhibit command by completing tests rapidly and accurately? Show organizational and motivational skill by moving through the course quickly? Show judgment through performance on peer grading? Leadership in group discussion? Etc. All this can be designed and measured. Even awarding badges for these things for a charge to students could bring revenue and would provide signals to employers that would make MOOCS more valuable to all:  that A would be differentiated from all other As. That C would be better if it were accompanied by a badge for group leadership.

So what if MOOCs become highly profitable “nonprofits” or morph into private firms? We can argue that MOOC students are getting free educational material and acquiring new knowledge. But that is available through many means that do not turn them into research subjects. We can argue that they are engaging with others on important subject matter.  But they can do that already on social media, blogs, etc., even in person. That they are saving money that would otherwise need to be paid to an institution for a comparable course. But few would argue that the courses, and certainly not the credential provided, are comparable, and that is why they are free.

But we’re moving to credentialing MOOCs, right? Possibly (I say possibly because there is deep skepticism about that no meaningful information yet despite a few experiments in that direction), which raises other questions. For example, if California is successful in its bid to get California institutions to accept MOOCs for certain courses, then which of the institution’s students get to take the MOOC versus get to attend every single class and all that goes with it—or vice versa? Will employers know who took the face-to-face course, and who took the MOOC? (Of course, the question of whether this matters is one MOOC companies will need to answer, much as pharmaceutical companies now conduct trials to show their drug is equivalent to or better than others. Enough said.) Will students in the MOOC have access to the same services—e.g., tutoring—and be subject to same course and university policies as their non-MOOC counterparts? If so, how enforce, and how control for this non-random population in the overall MOOC experiment? Will a separate sub-MOOC be set up (EdX has this potential, which certainly seems to be worth something)?

And most of all, does it mean that those students who took the MOOC do not have to pay the tuition and fees for that course? Clearly not. So MOOCs would not really be free (none of those for credit are), and those students would be paying to participate in the big MOOC research project. And if those students get credit from the California institution, why should not everyone who completed the course from around the world get that same credit from that institution?  And why should they not have to pay for that credit? Or is it that if you want the credential, you have to pay—which puts us right back where we started, with or without MOOCs.

So another option is that, as mentioned, MOOC companies become service providers to colleges and universities, with these institutions as the payers.  Or just becomes degree-granters (schools) themselves, which seems unlikely. Let’s face it, Harvard and MIT already have schools, thank you very much; they are more likely to allow someone else to figure out the credentialing (an entire service industry of doing the work of compiling custom degrees for students is possible) and bear all the other costs that go with being an accredited school, and stick to what I call a “make money while you sleep” business:  high-value-added, customizable, technology-supported information.  I actually love those kinds of businesses. But because MOOCs are of greatest value as a form of big data, and their inputs are people, they come with all the privacy issues that entails, and have the potential to become as detailed and longitudinal as your medical records. 

It is also possible that the egalitarian MOOC will, once the credentialing thing is figured out, turn out to be the opposite, and perhaps institutionalize class differences—both among students and teachers. We could see star faculty delivering courses, and their former colleagues, in their own or other institutions, becoming those who do course support. The need for faculty will diminish significantly, and only those faculty who can best attract students will make a living. This will not be like in the ancient days, when you had to be a skilled teacher to get students to pay you; one will not need to be a good teacher to record a video for MOOC, only to be famous (and have the support of experts in creating quality online courses and videos).  Many institutions think MOOCs could allow them to devote more money and time to research, and allow their faculty to escape the burden of undergraduate teaching/interaction even more than many do now, but they are dreaming on the former, and the latter will only be true for the stars, for whom it is already largely true.

The stratification issues for students are similar. Under a model where institutions seeks to limit access from unprepared students as a cost-cutting measure (and the costs of serving unprepared students is huge) until they complete their basic courses online, the residential college could end up serving only top students, even only top students in their last two years (a return to the 19th century vision of University of Chicago’s President Harper). Or only those wealthy enough to pay full tuition, with everyone else forced to take their courses online, especially if federal aid were no longer so easily accessible. It would become a highly stratified version of “college for all.”

This has just touched the surface. I should end by saying that I love the MOOC idea, and what it could be. But mostly I love, intellectually, what it could be as a business. As a way of getting some education or training in an area of personal or career interest, or to take a brush-up in Algebra, sure.  But as a way of getting a college degree, or of gathering private data for conversion to private use, not so much.  Maybe I could be convinced if every college student—and I mean everyone—had to take all of certain demonstrably equivalent foundation courses through MOOCs, which would be accepted by all institutions for credit; if it reduced total tuition and fees; and if there were limits on the data that could be collected and the (privacy-protected) data that was became a new government database accessible to the public through reasonable usage fees. Which means, of course, it would be a kind of national university. And that is another very old idea whose time may have come.

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