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Posted by on Jul 9, 2014 in eLearnings, Higher Education, Teaching | 2 comments

Teaching vs. research and MOOC brouhahas

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.

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  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.

    • 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.


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