‘Bill of Rights’ wants to keep massive online classes from being ‘Instagram of higher ed’

Remember all the hubbub last month when Instagram (s FB) changed its Terms of Service, outraging users who were concerned that they had become the product?
Well, to keep that from happening to the new wave of massive open online courses (MOOCs), a group of 12 educators, including MOOC-provider Udacity, has released what it calls a “Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age.” Apparently created at a “MOOC Summit,” which Udacity founder and Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun helped organize, the point of the document is to lay out a framework for protecting the rights of online students.
As MOOC-mania sweeps the world, attracting dozens of universities and millions of students, the authors of the Bill say the new learning platforms are “so promising in possibility, and yet so ripe for exploitation.” In rather lofty language, the bill puts forth a set of “inalienable rights,” including the rights to access, privacy, personal data and intellectual property, as well as financial and pedagogical transparency.
Cathy Davidson, an English professor at Duke University and one of the Bill’s authors told The Chronicle of Higher Education, that discussion surrounding MOOCs tends to involve a lot of hype — and a lot of questions.
“No one knows what the business models are,” she said. “The idea is to have a larger conversation about this so that MOOCs don’t become the Facebook or Instagram of higher education—where you sign up for some free service and it turns out that you’re the product being sold.”
The authors — who each published the document on their respective blogs and Github — invite students to join the discussion, emphasizing that the Bill is a work in progress and “can never be complete.” Clarissa Shen, VP of strategic business and marketing at Udacity, said the document was meant to be a “conversation starter,” not at all a final product. But even though they mean for it to be ever-hackable, it’s interesting — and a little unfortunate — that the original document wasn’t created in a more collaborative way, with more students and even with the other MOOC-providers Coursera and EdX themselves. On one hand, it’s understandable that the various competitors (especially the for-profit Udacity and Coursera) might not want to collaborate. But if the purpose of the document is to protect the rights of students, it seems that students would be best served by the buy-in of more stakeholders. (On Hack Education, writer Audrey Watters, an author of the Bill, gives more background on the Bill and says one student took part in the summit.)
Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng said he wasn’t aware of the document until today but said he thought it did a “reasonable job” outlining areas of student concern. “I see some value in codifying these rights but, to be honest, the fact the MOOC movement is by and large led by so many of the top universities around the world [that] are already used to the mentality of respecting student privacy and student rights means that today’s MOOC movement already embodies many of these values,” he said.
It may be true that many leading institutions have partnered with MOOCs, but they aren’t without skeptics who question their completion rates and wonder about their effectiveness in actually educating. Especially given concerns around how these sites might use and share student data, the document is an encouraging step – even if it lacks any real authority for keeping MOOC-providers in line.