Providers of free online classes who deal with tens of thousands of sometimes-anonymous students over vast distances are considering what to do if students post about suicide or murder.
The popularity of massive open online courses is also causing some educators to rethink the boundaries of the student-teacher relationship.
Scott Plous , a psychology professor at Wesleyan University, is preparing to teach more than 70,000 students who signed up for his class through Coursera , one of the popular MOOC providers. Plous, who worked at a Los Angeles suicide hotline before graduate school, is now trying to figure out how to monitor the message boards and deal with students who post hate speech or are threatening violence or suicide.
“If somebody is talking about a mass killing, how does the community handle that?” he said.
Since neither he nor his teaching assistants can expect to read every post on the class message board, Plous is partially counting on self-policing by users, something he may talk about in his introductory lecture. For instance, if someone in a remote village in India is talking about suicide, Plous hopes other users from India can suggest places to go for help.
Troubled MOOC users are an elephant in the room, said Gary Pavela, the author of a book on college student suicide  and an instructor at Syracuse University and the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.
Part of the advantage of the massive online courses is they can teach large numbers of students at little cost. There are some obvious differences between a MOOC user and a traditional student: There is no campus, so there can be no campus shootings, for instance. Some users are older or even younger than traditional college students. And, since MOOCs are mostly free and few are for credit, there is little on the line for users, unlike students who may be stressfully and expensively vying for a degree on a campus or even in a for-credit online class.
But Pavela wonders if online education as a whole can truly work for some students who have unaddressed inner turmoil.
“If people think they can move to the online university and do away with student services, they are being naïve,” he said. “Again, we’re not dealing with robots. They are people that have emotions and their emotions will interplay with their learning.”
Pavela said there is not legal liability for the online course providers, but there is an ethical obligation to users.
Nancy Williamson, general counsel at University of Maryland University College, has been dealing with a large online student population for 13 years. The university, which has a significant number of overseas military students, has not done away with student services. It has a behavioral assessment review team (a standard feature of bricks and mortar universities) to look at online students' behavior to decide what to do. The university can involve local law enforcement or military base officials, depending on the seriousness of a student’s behavior.
“It applies the same if a student is a mile down the road or across the world,” Williamson said.
She wonders how one-off classes like those offered by MOOCs can stack up against the steps UMUC takes. “I think when you’re an educational institutional you need to focus on educating the entire student, not just getting them through that one class,” Williamson said.
Coursera said it is thinking about how to deal with troubled users. “To put it simply, at Coursera, we’re still trying to figure out what that process looks like,” said Yin Lu, whose title at Coursera is community and culture architect. She said so far the company has not had severe cases involving troubled students.
Now, Coursera is drawing on the experience of Facebook, Twitter and World of Warcraft, a massive online computer game. Facebook, for instance, has a page for users to report suicidal posts by other users, something Coursera may consider adding. Lu said the company is working technology to automatically flag potentially troubling posts using keywords. That should be up and running in the next few months, she said.
Lu said the company is planning to give its staff suicide prevention classes and make them aware of global suicide prevention resources. About 65 percent of the company’s users are from outside of the United States .
Coursera users only have to provide an e-mail address and a name, which doesn’t have to be real, so the company could be hard-pressed to locate someone like UMUC can. Still, Lu said if a situation is serious enough the company could try to locate someone, potentially using an IP address.
“It’s life or death, really, so that should be taken as seriously as possible,” Lu said.
Representatives for two other popular MOOC providers, Udacity and edX, did not comment in detail on what steps, if any, they take to deal with troubled students, though edX said in a statement that it is working on a process to “help ensure that the communities formed on our discussion boards enable learners to succeed academically and personally."