research ethics: MOOCs and private data

research ethics: MOOCs and private data

I wasn’t going to get involved in this brouhaha involving the #massiveteaching scenario, whatever it plays out to be. There are much smarter people than I commenting and analyzing and getting to the bottom of it. If you need to come up to speed, I might suggest any of these pieces to do so:

The Twitter stream has seen some excellent detective work and commentary from Kate Bowles, George Siemens, Audrey Watters, Bonnie Stewart, etc., all individuals I respect. So I will leave the continued investigation to them and focus on areas that matter to me and to the field I serve. I need to stress that this story is ongoing (at least at the time of this writing) so it might turn out to not be as severe as expected. I doubt it, but still.

Much of my commentary relates to a recent post I did on research ethics, where I outlined what I felt our responsibility as educators is to our students and to the tools we use to instruct them (Coursera being an example of this). I think Jonathan Rees gets closer in his post to what met biggest issues are with this whole saga, but I wanted to build a bit on what he said.

Frankly, I’d take any adjunct professor with ten years experience and put them in front of 50,000 people before I’d do so with any star in their field. After all, adjuncts devote practically all their professional time to providing a better educational experience, in fact their continued employment often depends upon it. Many (but certainly not all) professors at elite universities are too busy doing their own research to care about what’s happening in their own classes. Commercial MOOCs are simply the logical extension of that kind of negligence.

Professors who really care about the quality of education don’t give a damn about the first mover advantage. They’d rather do their jobs well than become famous or conduct massive social experiments on their students without their consent, which probably means that they’d never in a million years work for Coursera.

I agree with this all and I wanted to extend this discussion a bit. Coursera has much to account for here in terms of their selection process, their quality control, their processes for taking down courses and notifying students. That is a huge part of this discussion and one that I hope these and other writes focus their efforts on, bringing them into the open with their selection processes, and, with enough pressure, into line with research and instructional ethics on how classes are presented and conducted. I wrote a bit about this in the last post as well.

I am not against any of these private vendors/platforms; in fact, I currently assist the World Bank on a MOOC they are running right now on Risk and Opportunity: Managing Risk for Development. It is going well and I think value is being generated for the participants. So I extend this criticism with that disclaimer. I want these services to be better as I still have a humble, perhaps naive hope that it might prove worthwhile for those without access to many educational opportunities. To lifelong learners. To the curious and eager. Again, I am focusing on the people I serve (students).

Research vs. Teaching

Which brings me to my real critique here. The research/teaching divide that we in higher education have created, protected, and fueled through our impact factors, through our grant funding, and through our university ranking adherences. We have created a system that absolutely encourages this sort of behavior, or at least places the response cost so low as to invite these types of shenanigans. We so explicitly value research over teaching that these things are bound to happen. Research sees students as subjects (or at least this guy did), not as students. Private vendors (Coursera et al) certainly share a large part of the blame (course selection and quality control spring to mind), but this guy used them as a tool to enact this debacle. And it is here where I see the absolute contradiction involved in universities saying that students “need a reality check” when complaining about contact hours or poor teaching (those crazy kids!). We are encouraging them to not view university as a consumer-based activity where education is delivered and processed and hopefully operationalized somehow in an employment setting. We say this even as we subject them to research projects with or without consent as recent events would demonstrate. Call it what you will, but this is treating students as a consumable commodity, or even an asset. They are ingredients; something we use to generate what we want: research. This is the engine that fuels all of this. Coursera and others can only exist with university approvals and generated content and instruction. They are to blame, surely. I suspect without full transparency, they are doomed to failure in the long-term. Eventually everyone will come around to the idea that learning is a trust proposition and that begins with honesty.

If it all proves to be true, the professor thought he was running a social experiment, an ethical exercise in the open, or whatever nonsense he had concocted in his head. It was not for the sake of the students; it was for the research that would be generated as a result. It was not an act of drawing attention to the issue of Coursera and data collection and rights of students and all that, which are very real concerns, but rather an act of manipulation for research effect. Manipulation. Say it enough and let it sink in. Students as assets in some sort of research machine. Nonsense.

This is made all the more abhorrent by the fact that the course was ostensibly designed “to help disoriented educators find their feet in the online landscape” (Kolowich, 2014). So he targeted individuals with a will to improve their teaching practices but perhaps with little access to other professional development opportunities in an effort to have them confront the dangers of the internet and private data collection. Well done. I am sure that is their takeaway from the “experiment”. I am sure their real disillusionment isn’t about the lost opportunity to improve their teaching or to learn something new or to just be inquisitive and engaged in a world engulfed with information. It is with private data collection. Again, this is a legitimate issue, private data collection and organizations like Coursera, but that can be incorporated into an actual course design, no? There can’t be an actual learning activity that addresses what information they are collecting, what it can be used for, and whether or not they feel comfortable exposing themselves or their students to that scenario? There can’t be reflection, some project-based activity, peer review and collaboration, consensus building? No? Manipulation and deception was the best way to do that? My academic language is failing me here so I will resort to the vernacular. Lame.

Better yet, why not make the course itself a research design process ostensibly aimed to analyzing how data is used? Walk the students through the design process so they can begin to generate their own data, analyze it with their own selection of theories, draw their own conclusions? Why is that so hard? Perhaps I am just not smart enough to understand why intellectual and design laziness is being projected as experimentation. And this is laziness. There are many ways to get learners to draw their own conclusions and to do so with a repertoire of sources and approaches. To be critical, discerning, and aware of the machinations around them. But this approach, this manipulation? It is just laziness.

And professionally reprehensible. As an instructor/teacher/educator/professor (yes, professor), you are given a professional charge to instruct, guide, and protect your students as they engage in what is a courageous act of learning. They are vulnerable and exposed precisely because they had the absolute bravery to commit to a process of inspection, experimentation, and learning. It can be as clumsy a process as anything on this earth, ripe with (even encouraging) mistakes and hopefully resilience to continue. Your task as an instructor is to usher them through this process. Not to manipulate them through falsehoods and deception. Trust. Trust. Trust. Without this, we are nowhere pedagogically. Trust was abused in this case, badly. Higher education, we did not do ourselves any favors with this one.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

12 thoughts on “Teaching vs. research and MOOC brouhahas”
  1. What a great post and some sense at last. I think many academics and institutions are leaving their ethical values behind, but there are many out there who are not.

    1. Thanks, Viv. Agree completely. I just can’t fathom how or why we in higher education would even want to not fully consider the student perspective before proceeding with something like this “experiment.” The end does not always justify the means; safeguards for research participants are in place for a reason.

      1. I agree with the “breach of trust” proposition that occurred, but there are several steps and players in this. The trust relationship is not direct between students and instructor, there are several intermediates. And the process is indeed not transparent.

        Why do you assume safeguards for research participants are in place on Coursera? Why do you assume I knew whether they were in place or not? Why do you assume I didn’t have reasons to doubt that they were? Why do you assume I would have been met with enough transparency if I asked?

        1. Hello there, Paul-Olivier,

          Good to hear from you and thanks for that comment. I am always open to different perspectives so appreciate you taking the time to post that. In response, I don’t assume anything in regards to your relation with Coursera, nor do I assume anything about any sort of safeguards Coursera has for research participants. I think it is indeed an excellent idea to educate people on the realities of open online learning (particularly through commercial organizations like Coursera), what data is being collected, the risks involved, etc. I commend you for that overall focus as it is something I try to teach as well. It is merely the methods you used to go about this that I question.

          I agree there are several intermediaries in this trust relationship between student and instructor (even in classroom-based learning), and Coursera is most certainly one in this scenario. However, this does not mitigate your relationship with your students. I completely agree that this is not a transparent issue (but we should always push for more transparency). I again didn’t assume that you thought otherwise. I again merely question the method of intentionally deceiving a group of students, your students, towards illustrating a particular end. Nobody is questioning the value of this ‘end’ (Coursera’s fuzzy/nonexistent research guidelines, data collection, etc.), merely the process in which you generated that knowledge. Please do correct me if I am off-base here, but it appears to me that you intentionally violated research ethics (full disclosure and informed consent) to prove a point about the lack of research ethics (on the part of Coursera). That seems suspect, but I am open to a differing perspective here.

          That is not even what most concerns me in this scenario (as again, I think the ‘end’ result is a positive one). From a teaching perspective this approach is highly suspect as it involves not only duplicity, but outright deceit. Again, the knowledge itself that could have been gleaned from this approach was valuable, but you engineered the course to be something else, to be about learning something else, and beyond that was this ultimate aim of revealing a reality of the service provider (or whatever you might want to refer to Coursera as). Again, valuable lesson, but a duplicitous means of achieving it. Perhaps you are straddling the often artificial divisions between teaching and research (which I believe should be reduced as well), and attempting to bridge the ethical responsibilities across both? I am not sure, to be honest.

          Either way, I think a parallel perspective you revealed was the fact that higher education (and, as an extension, these MOOC platforms) is heavily and perhaps irrevocably tilted towards research over teaching. While I must accept that in my own position in my own university, I cringe each and every time someone makes that obvious for students. Again, the knowledge itself is a good ultimate ‘end’, but it is now, at least for these students, knowledge tinged with disillusionment rather than revelation or even methodical reflection. The former will be, in some cases, inhibiting; the latter, in some cases, will be generative for further learning.

          Thanks again for the comment, Paul-Olivier. All my best.

          1. Hi,
            Thanks for the thoughtful response back.

            You say:
            “Please do correct me if I am off-base here, but it appears to me that you intentionally violated research ethics (full disclosure and informed consent) to prove a point about the lack of research ethics (on the part of Coursera). That seems suspect, but I am open to a differing perspective here.”

            I do not feel this is what I have done. I have certainly not intentionally violated research ethics. I am open to the idea that I would have, and absolutely welcome any discussion on the topic. I do not want to research myself whether I have or not violated research ethics, for fear of being accused of performing research again.

            There are several things to unpack in what you wrote, but key to me is this:
            “I completely agree that this is not a transparent issue (but we should always push for more transparency).”

            The course was interrupted mid-stream, and certainly not on the basis of ethics. I include below an explanation email that I asked to be sent to the students back on July 18th (you will have to believe me about the date).

            I had planned to teach a class called “Massive Teaching: new skills required”. The class was targeted at curious professionals who would have relatively little time to devote to the topic and needed a quick familiarisation. My motivation in teaching this MOOC was to address heads on the data and business practices of MOOC providers, and explore the potential of MOOCs (or rather the technology) beyond teaching. I feel that this motivation is consistent with teaching the course as advertised: pedagogy (1st week), technology/copyright (2nd week) and business models/science fiction (3rd and final week). This plan was communicated openly to Coursera and unsurprisingly, the Coursera Quality Assurance process became very legalistic and reliant on contracts.

            In agreement with Coursera, I also introduced experimental parts while developing the course. These were clearly advertised as such. This led, against my best judgement, to a complexification of the MOOC, while I should have really kept it as much as possible a straightforward academic explanation of what I know.

            The first week of the course went well, but right at the end the Facebook experiment made the news. The confused coverage [ongoing, see 1] led me to question briefly my interactions with students [2, first paragraph] but also more importantly what I intended to do next: it now seemed to me unwise to collectively build a class-scale Personal Learner Knowledge Graph without ethics board pre-approval, and undesirable to show on a commercial platform how such graphs could be studied, compared, monetized, etc, since this raises unresolved ethical questions that go beyond a simple ethics board [2, last paragraph]. For the third week I was prepared to explain how a lot of Coursera’s business relies on crowdsourcing (a field whose ethics is almost always murky), for instance with the Global Translator Community, the Community TAs, the Partners Portal and volunteer work of professors. I had just realized ethics also lied in that crowdsourcing pile, and suddenly felt exposed and unprepared.

            At this point I should have just stopped the course, or at least dropped all experimental parts. However, as I was reminded many times during the QA process, the pressure for metaMOOC is intense, which led me to look for an alternative venue for building a simili-PLKG in the second week. I decided Twitter could work, and could also help illustrate other parts of the course. To be clear: my intent had to change after that weekend, but it never became to force students to interact via social networks or to shut down the class. However, I was unable to explain this improvisation well, because of stress, MOOC inexperience, and the fact that I had to be very mindful of libel clauses protecting the Coursera brand. I also had to be aware that some students were trudging along solely watching videos, and that all would have to take the final peer grading assignment that Coursera had required me to introduce at the end. I actively tried to engage those students more directly. Emails seemed ineffective, so I removed the videos and most but not all forums. I intended to fully engage with students on the forums that were left. This action however prompted Coursera to react, which led in quick succession to: the course content being reinstated (selectively), my rights as instructor being (progressively) removed, my professor and student accounts’ posts being systematically deleted, and generally more (rather than less) confusion among students. After Friday of the second week, the course continued without my involvement. Coursera used a peer feedback drafted within the first week of the course to deliver a final grade in the third week, with no direct acknowledgement to the students that anything was afoot. I did not try to have my name removed from the course, since I had early on to sign away all rights to my image.

            At no point have I collected student’s Personally Identifiable Information, beyond aggregate IP information on one hyperlink. I do not have the impression of having conducted a social experiment on the students but realize my judgement on this has no value.

            I heavily regret having involved 8000 students in this course, and would like to apologize to all that wish they had never been part of it, in particular those for whom it was the first MOOC. If you feel that you are owed a more personal explanation and do not receive one, the best I can offer is to ask me directly.



          2. Hello there, Paul-Olivier,

            Again, good on you for providing such thought-provoking and detailed responses. I think you are being very forthright about this whole process and this reflects well on you; I appreciate the candor. Indeed, I suspect it would have felt like a perfect storm in terms of the timing with the Facebook social experiment; that was indeed unfortunate timing and I fully understand how these MOOCs can spiral out of control rather quickly. They are behemoths that don’t maneuver all that easily, particularly in crisis situations. I think there are social and cultural elements at work in how students are responding to online courses that make them slightly resistant to full novelty in terms of activity. So my sympathies are certainly there with you. I think once you recognized that the more experimental parts of the course were not working (or were not going to be allowed to work), you acted well trying to communicate as much as possible, withdrawing certain parts, etc. I believe your actions and in particular this and other explanations are good reflections and lessons for all of us (me included) on what might work and what might not, how organizations might respond like Coursera, etc. And, despite all the messiness of the situation, you did succeed in raising certain questions and forcing the community to consider not only the business practices of organizations like Coursera, but ethics, teaching, and the whole lot of it. So it raised questions that moved forward the conversation on ethics and business involvement in education, which is a contribution. Again, I feel there are many sides to this but I feel people much smarter than me are covering the business/ethical part of it so I wanted to make sure the teaching and student relationship side of the conversation was being addressed. I don’t need any apology at all, Paul; I just want to advance my field (teaching) as much as any professional might, to make it more robust and professional through my teaching, my discussion, and my writing.

            Either way, all my best, Paul-Olivier. I send you a sincere hope that all goes well with future endeavors.

  2. It was indeed a perfect storm. The freak wave was that Facebook Emotion Study, but right before I saw it there was another article that started “sinking” the ship:
    The first link in particular, with the mention of “how to teach a group of sophomores” was very instructive (to me), with a lot of practical tips.
    Whether the ship is sunk or not is still a matter of debate, according to me.

    1. Agreed, Paul-Olivier. I do not believe the ship is sunk, so to speak, as we are all learning from it. It all forced a discussion, at the very least, that is helping define the boundaries and the processes of teaching and interacting in these open courses. So in that sense, it has proven fruitful.

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