24 February 2013

What responsibilities should MOOC platforms assume?

Money is an important consideration in education. For schools on public funding, it comes in the form of costs, which should be kept low in order to balance the budget. For MOOC providers such as Coursera and Udacity, it comes in the form of revenue, which should be maximised in order to keep the venture capital firms happy that have seeded them with start-up capital. On the matter of the need to provide higher education with enough money to keep it public, I have written twice last month (MOOCs, some moral considerations, MOOCs, arguments at cross purposes), so I will remain silent about that now. This time I want to share some thoughts about the responsibilities MOOC platform providers such as Coursera, Udacity and edX could have. They are the third element in the area of tension between the professors who provide the content and the universities with which these professors are affiliated.

Coursera has had the misfortune to experience two incidents in one month. First, on February 4th 2013, a course on online learning (Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application) had to be stopped because its design couldn't cope with the massive numbers of students (see Coursera forced to call off a MOOC amid complaints about the course), then exactly two weeks later, professor McKenzie resigned from a course on economics over a dispute on his teaching style (see Professor Leaves a MOOC in Mid-Course in Dispute Over Teaching). This got me thinking, helped by the discussion that ensued in a LinkedIn group on MOOCs. One may blame Coursera for pushing things too hard in an effort to stay ahead of the competition, and, indeed, I did so in my comments on Scoop.it. However, true or not, it only scratches at the surface of what the problem really is. That is that responsibilities between the three parties of content author ('professor'), university and MOOC platform have not been delineated in sufficient detail.

The division of responsibilities between a university and the instructors it employs may seem the simplest to define, as mutual responsibilities supposedly have been defined long since. But that was related to lecturing classes, not to online classes. In online classes, particularly MOOCs, a professor who fails to deliver quality is exposed to the world at large immediately, threatening the university's reputation. In the case mentioned, the issue seemingly was over the way McKenzie treated his students, as adolescents who needed to be instructed by him, not as colleagues who want to pick a discussion about the foundations of economics. One of his students pointed out that she was a full professor in economics, the subject taught. She complained that McKenzie acted as a sage on the stage, not wanting to be challenged, not wanting to engage in serious discussion (see the discussion in the LinkedIn group mentioned already for more details). The point is not who is wrong or right, the point I want to make is that McKenzie came to the MOOC with a set of assumptions about what he was expected to do that his students took issue with.

One may wonder whether the MOOC platform provider (Coursera) should have instructed McKenzie and his university better. And some argued that in the interest of quality control they should have. The same applies to the earlier incident, where the instructor in question used Google groups to set up discussions between the course's students but apparently was unaware of the fact that there is an upper limit to the number of participants such groups can accommodate. Again, shouldn't Coursera have better instructed either the course instructor or her university? This highlights the importance of the question of what exactly the responsibilities of platform providers are. Two models come to mind.

A MOOC platform provider could be like an internet access provider. Internet access providers may offer some content of their own - usually in the form of a home page - but they act rather like electricity providers: they provide a transfer service, but do not interfere with what gets transferred (even though occasionally governments unwisely try to force them into that role). So, on this account, much as the utility company doesn't care about what you use your electricity for, the MOOC provider is oblivious to what content you push through their platform.

On the other hand, MOOC platform providers may adopt the model that Apple does with its iTunes service. The iTunes universe of apps, music, movies and books is a closed one, carefully monitored by Apple. This leads sometimes to complaints, when Apple refuses an app because it violates its policy. Apple can't be blamed for that. After all, being a private company, the notion of censorship does not apply to them; that only applies to governments. Apple also takes a rather large cut out of the revenue that content providers on iTunes make. In this sense, Udacity, Coursera and edX are already like Apple (see this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education). How about the censorship? Although I know of no evidence that they refuse particular courses that participating universities suggest, MOOC platform providers certainly are selective about the universities they allow to participate in their platform.

Back to the question of the division of responsibilities of universities and their professors on the one hand and the MOOC platform providers on the other. Under the model of a MOOC provider as a utility company, both incidents fall squarely under the responsibility of the participating universities and the professors they employ. It is their content, they are responsible for its quality. This confirms their role of providers of quality education, but doesn't fit with the prominent role in the media that MOOC content providers claim nor their role as content aggregators. The actual distribution of responsibilities seems  better to match the Apple iTunes model. However, if MOOC platform providers were to adopt that, you may end up with them carrying out quality control and 'censoring' content. Do MOOC providers have the resources to do that? And what about a course on, say, nudes in impressionist paintings?

Contrasting these two models this way does not imply they exhaust the universe of possible models; nor does it imply blends are impossible. I used them primarily to highlight the issue of the division of responsibilities between the three parties involved in MOOCs. As an added bonus, they suggest ways in which we can think about such a division. What the two incidents show is that clarity on this matter is badly needed. As Tony Bates commented after the first incident... in education you are playing with people’s hopes and dreams. Do the job properly.