MOOCs and the academy: beyond solely paedagogical challenges

Much of the discussion around MOOCs has rightfully focused on educational aspects. Nevertheless, other facets of the phenomenon should also actively be discussed in public, by all academics.


  1. As individual courses, so-called Massive Open Online Courses present so far relatively little novelty in traditional e-learning, beyond their scale: they are at best merely a modern online course offered through a Learning Management System, but scaled to (hundreds of) thousands of simultaneous students. This scale however is only achieved by centralising students on a few (commercial) online platforms. Positive feedback loops on students, courses and universities numbers (via network effects and Metcalfe’s Law) make public discussion urgent.
  2. This is just another shade of the societal trend of privatising the public realm in the digital world, further complicated by the fact that MOOC platforms are located in a multi-sided market: they partner with universities, but also employers, private companies or job platforms. These developments are likely to affect the power distribution and the politics around education, employment and innovation in decades to come.
  3. What I say below is relevant for the dominant MOOC platform (Coursera, which has 4 times the number of students and universities than its closest competitor, edX).
  4. Shared governance

  5. Unlike in book publishing, MOOC platforms usually demand top-down agreement: these partnerships are seen by university management as strategic decisions and enacted through non-disclosure agreements. The platforms have bargaining power, and offer differentiated deals between universities.
  6. Academic freedom

  7. Top-down decisions explicitly discourage some course topics, while external funding introduces undisclosed interests.
  8. This raises issues of academic freedom and free speech, which are compounded by the funding through venture capital, co-investing in the targets of many public criticism addressed at Silicon Valley.
  9. MOOCs as inventions

  10. MOOCs tend to be treated as collaborative inventions, and intellectual property tends to be held by the university and not the faculty. The "byproducts" of a MOOC, such as student-generated ideas, have murky ownership.
  11. Crowdsourcing and labor issues

  12. Cost-saving is encouraged through the extensive use of crowdsourcing. After the first run of a MOOC, professors are almost superfluous and paid teaching assistants get replaced by Community TAs. Customer service and course transcriptions are outsourced to crowdsourcing companies. Translation is crowdsourced to student volunteers. This is done with no ethical oversight on the retribution to the volunteers, who know very little of the concrete business mechanisms affecting their work (ownership of translations stays with Coursera, rather than the university or the professor).
  13. Data protection and ownership

  14. Coursera reaches international students, but also has US-hosted sites for on-campus students of their partners (this is the case for EPFL). Coursera denies the applicability of US education regulation (FERPA). It is not fully forthcoming via the Safe Harbor EU-US data protection agreements (particularly notice and access clauses for the derivative data it computes and hold about students, invoking the excuse that this data is computed on US servers).
  15. The Coursera-led “research” is done with no ethical oversight or public accountability. Consent to this business-driven "research" is obtained through Terms of Service, and camouflaged amidst IRB-sanctioned academic research. Ownership of the data stays with Coursera, while universities get only the fraction produced by their courses (anonymised) to produce their own research in learning.
  16. Certification

  17. Once a student is certified by the university to have passed a course, this data is also owned by Coursera (and still depends on the startup, due to cryptographic signature). This enables lots of new business models, with no effective oversight from the academic side of the educational claims tied to the certificates or the usage made of these claims. One example is a transcript service (listed in leaked Coursera contracts), enabling specialised labor-on-demand services at scale and globally. No one seems so far to have considered the political implications of local universities helping to benchmark their local students against the global workforce on specialised skills or knowledge.
  18. Social impact

  19. MOOCs have a positive social impact for many individuals via the education they provide. Their scale and focus on big data analytics might however also come at a cost. Research in this area is only beginning, and severely lagging technological and commercial developments.