Sunday, May 18, 2014

What If a Student's MOOC Assignment POs Someone?

What would happen if something a MOOC student submitted for an assignment offended someone not involved in the course? It's bound to happen sooner or later. Considering the global reach of a MOOC there could be a lot of blow back. Wouldn't it be a great idea to take a pedagogically proactive approach to the possibility?

I had such a terrific time taking my first MOOC earlier this year ("How to Change the World" read about the experience here) that I signed up for another one. The MOOC I'm currently enrolled in is called "Beyond Silicon Valley : Growing Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies" led by Michael Goldberg at Case Western Reserve University. I am having as excellent an experience this time around. Beyond Silicon Valley is challenging, thought provoking, engaging and as with "How to Change the World" I'm learning incredibly useful information that has already paid off professionally in more ways than one.

One nice difference this time is that the course faculty are taking active part in the forum discussions. That provides an added sense of connection. On the down side, the assignments are assessed this time based solely upon word count and whether or not you submit the assignment on time. I found this out when I misread a due time (did "midnight" mean the start of the day or the end of the day?) and also when my assignments were scored instantaneously. I have to say that I miss the peer grading from my last MOOC; it wasn't always high quality, but it was interesting. And the opportunity to read and ponder other student assignments was enlightening and sometimes mind blowing.

As with my first MOOC, "Beyond Silicon Valley" asks the student to dig for answers and reflect on their implications for their own situation. But it goes beyond that with a midterm that asks the student to interview local entrepreneurs and write about their findings.

Herein approaches the sticky issue.

Some pretty sensitive stuff can come up when asking business owners about their company. Having interviewed people in a variety of professional settings for years, I know that even the most cautious interviewee let slip things they might prefer not be put in writing. A good interviewer can facilitate this happening. It then falls on the interviewer to employ wise judgement when writing up their story.

Having high journalistic standards (whether as a professional or student writer) is important. I suspect the vast majority of my peer students are not out to muck rake or hurt anyone. Hopefully they pay attention to how and what they write, and in sensitive situations perhaps run proposed text by the people they report on.

But do all students in a given class take such care? Perhaps more important for an educator to ask: Do students even know to think about this?

No, they all don't.

In a Coursera MOOC (both of my classes were by Coursera) the student signs an agreement not to distribute, copy, report or otherwise share anything written by another student without that student's express permission. This is good, and thus, should there be a leak of one student's material by another student, the source of responsibility and liability is pretty clear.

On the other hand, students also sign an agreement when they first sign up with Coursera  acknowledging they are aware that all their contributions will be readable by the university course staff and by Coursera personnel. In addition, the student agrees that Coursera may, at it's own discretion, use portions of student submissions. I can't remember the details, but basically the student agrees that Coursera has wide latitude in how it chooses to use student material. I have no problem with that. Coursera has the right to make that request in return for the educational service they are providing - for free. Until proven otherwise, I default to trusting Coursera not to abuse the situation.

Back to the stickiness.

Consider a scenario in which a student in a course such as "Beyond Silicon Valley"submits an assignment based upon an interview with a business entity. It's good. It's interesting. It's quality. As a result, someone on university or Coursera staff uses part or all of it for training or PR purposes. The business becomes offended for some unforeseeable reason.

The business may have assumed confidentiality, especially as this was a student assignment. The student may have not thought about the possibility that either a) what s/he wrote would bother anyone or that b) it would ever be seen outside the virtual course wall. The student may have not discussed the possibility of the the interview becoming public in whole or part. Yet Coursera has the right to use the student material. Everyone was acting in good faith. Nonetheless, the stuff hits the fan.

Who is responsible? Who is going to take the heat? Who is going to come out ok and who will be severely bruised?

It would be completely counterproductive for all concerned if this situation becomes bogged down in legal and bureaucratic wranglings. We're talking about education here folks; social change. Let's take the high road shall we and try to cut this off at the pass.

In a live or virtual classroom there is an opportunity for faculty to discuss issues of confidentiality, privacy, contractual agreements; implications of what you write, possible scenarios of how material can be used. Especially with regards to interviewing and how the material is written up. We shouldn't assume that intelligent well educated adults (as most MOOC students are) know all about this. Even if they do, the topic bears revisiting. It's good for faculty and students alike to remember that you can have all your facts and knowledge and entrepreneurial ducks in a row, yet if you step on the wrong person's toe you are toast.

Pedagogically, there is an important difference here between a traditional class and a MOOC class. The sense of distance inherent to a virtual environment can lead to increased complacency or denial of interpersonal communication landmines. Thus we have a challenge that needs to be addressed proactively.

Pedagogically we have a great opportunity.  MOOCs such as Coursera's want to change the face of education and benefit society by leveraging the power of the Internet. I'm all for it. In these early entrepreneurial stages of MOOC development, let's watch for these sticky issues and talk about them until we solve them.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Lisa for sharing this post. I am glad you raised the issue regarding confidentiality of submissions. In some ways, I faced the same challenges when I interviewed subjects for my video lectures. Not every entrepreneur and thought leader was likely as candid as they would have been about their experience growing their company as they would have been without the camera on. I think it is a good reminder to the course staff that we should check with students if we wanted to excerpt any of the submissions to circulate among the other students. My thought is that there would be value in sharing selected action learning assignments as well as final projects among the group. Perhaps the way to address this will be to create a space where students can choose to post links to their own reports and videos.

    Great having you in the course. Your posts have been excellent and thought provoking!