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The Ethics of MOOCs

May 8, 2013

Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

In the fall of 2011, 160,000 students from 190 countries enrolled in a free artificial intelligence course offered online by Stanford University.

This idea—available-to-anyone education provided by big-name colleges at no cost —ignited a flame. Massive open online courses, or “MOOCs” for short, have flourished in the year and a half since Stanford’s experiment.

Companies such as Coursera, edX and Udacity formed. Their platforms host classes taught by professors from top schools like the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, Harvard and MIT. Hundreds of thousands of students, from teenagers to nonagenarians, are flocking to digital classrooms to learn algebra, cryptography, genetics, mythology, and hundreds of other subjects.

In their relatively short existence, MOOCs have created a lot of buzz. Academics, news outlets and non-governmental organizations worldwide are debating the potential of this revolution. Proponents herald MOOCs as a game-changing global outreach initiative, capable of bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Critics, on the other hand, dispute the feasibility of the business model behind MOOCs. And skeptics wonder about learning outcomes and retention rates for these courses. Just 23,000 of the students who signed up for Stanford’s first MOOC—or about 14 percent—actually completed the class. That low rate seems to be the norm for MOOCs.

These issues aside, the MOOC trend, like any digital endeavor of such a scale, brings up several ethical questions, questions about integrity, efficacy, fairness and the digital divide.

Will students cheat?

One of the benefits of online classes is that students can take them anywhere and anytime: lounging on their couch wearing pajamas, at 2 a.m. while the kids sleep or even from a hut in a small Egyptian village. But with this freedom comes temptation.

In more blunt terms: Students have access to outside materials during tests. They’re not sitting in a lecture hall under the watchful eye of a professor. If they’re stumped by an exam question, nobody will stop them from asking a friend for the answer. There’s no automatic “F” for thumbing through a textbook while taking the test or for Googling a concept you can’t remember.

Not everyone will cheat. But inevitably, some people will. An article in The Chronicle of Education last fall noted dozens of plagiarism incidents in non-credit Coursera humanities courses. And students taking MOOCs have been known to post answers to test questions and assignments on online message boards.

To be fair, students in a traditional classroom can cheat on homework assignments, quizzes and papers too. But a final exam is tougher to scam in-person.

MOOC providers have a few ideas to combat online cheating, from honor codes to plagiarism-detection software. There are also more sophisticated solutions, meant to ensure that the students taking the exams really are who they say they are.

Coursera uses an algorithmic keystroke system that verifies a student’s unique typing pattern. Udacity pays proctors to monitor students through webcams. edX students can take their finals at testing centers located in 110 countries. There they have to provide three forms of identification: a photo, a palm-vein scan and a digital signature. It’s clear that MOOC providers aren’t taking the cheating issue lightly.

Still, these measures won’t completely squash cheating—for now at least. There’s a fee to take a proctored exam, and physical testing centers might not to accessible to everyone. And asking students to provide a typing sample or a webcam headshot won’t stop them from looking up answers online.

Will employers consider MOOCs qualification for jobs?

While learning for the sake of learning is a noble pursuit, let’s assume that most people go to college to improve their job prospects. The big question is: Will MOOCs provide this benefit?

In an effort to bring in revenue, MOOC providers have started offering certificates of completion to students who’ve passed their courses—for a modest fee.

So let’s say a student completes a MOOC, learns a relevant new skill along the way, and has a piece of paper proving they did so. Will this help him get a job? Will a recruiter or potential employer look at this coursework listed on a resume and consider it a reputable form of qualification?

Coursera cofounder Andrew Ng said in a recent interview that he believes they will: “Many employers are beginning to recognize the value of a certificate from Coursera on a resume,” he said to EvoLLLution, an online newspaper that exploresnon-traditional programs in the higher education industry.

However, there’s no hard data—no comprehensive studies or surveys—that prove his statement. Perhaps this research will come, but for now students will have to assume that the real answer to this question will vary. It’ll depend on the personal opinions of hiring managers, and on students’ abilities to leverage their experience anecdotally during job interviews.

It’s worth noting that Coursera has launched a recruiting service that students and the colleges offering courses can opt into. Coursera sells employers—“partner companies” that include Facebook and Twitter—data about top-performing students, those who earn good grades and frequently participate in discussion forums. According to the company’s website, the career program “connects passionate and committed Coursera students with positions that match their skills and interests.”

Udacity works with some 350 companies in a similar job service. Neither MOOC provider has disclosed how much they charge their partners or how many of their student-employer introductions have led to hires.

Should higher education be free?

This broad, philosophical question is an ethical query with real applications in the MOOC world. Some universities simultaneously offer a course in two ways: In-person to students enrolled at their school, and online to the masses. They charge students for the face-to-face class, but offer the same one—with the same professor, same content and same exams—online for free.

The big differences, of course, are money and course credit. Students attending the lectures and taking the tests in a physical classroom are paying big bucks for that privilege, and they receive credit that counts toward a degree bearing the name of a prestigious school.

It may sound like a fair trade-off, but a similar scenario has gotten some news organizations in trouble. Paid subscribers have the luxury of turning physical pages while reading a newspaper or magazine, and maybe even enjoy exclusive content. But most of the content is available online for free. There’s no need to elaborate on the financial catastrophe that this model has caused.

Schools that offer MOOCs are responsible for the expenses of developing and delivering these courses. They have to pay for production costs (making the videos, websites and administering web support) and employee hours (of faculty, teaching assistants and other staff). They may pay to advertise it, to regulate it and to conduct learning analytics.

One University of Michigan professor estimated that the Model Thinking MOOC he taught took 300 to 400 hours of faculty work. The University of Pennsylvania has said that each of its Coursera courses cost about $50,000 to produce.

Grants and philanthropy might cover some of these expenses, and one could argue that schools charging students up to$50,000 a year in tuition can afford to make a MOOC. Still, is it right to use money collected from enrolled students to produce coursework for thousands of other people?

Will MOOCs further the digital divide?

They’re expensive and time-consuming. Students might cheat, and there’s no proof they’ll lead to jobs. So why are schools and start-up benefactors eagerly jumping on the MOOCs bandwagon?

Well, for starters, MOOCs are good public relations: a way to show off faculty members and degree programs. Through MOOCs, schools can explore evolving learning technology and participate in a cutting edge movement. And, of course, there’s the global outreach component.

As higher education costs grow each year at a rate faster than incomes and inflation, the system becomes increasingly restrictive. MOOCs suggest that high-quality educational experience, and the opportunities that come with it, doesn’t have to be so expensive.

On their website, edX says that its goal is to “…reach out to students of all ages, means, and nations, and to deliver these teachings from a faculty who reflect the diversity of its audience.” Udacity calls education “a basic human right.”

Following suit Coursera writes “…we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education…”

These companies aren’t the only ones that think the MOOC movement can change the world. In a commentary piecepublished by The Chronicle of Higher Education this February, foreign policy expert William Avery wrote “MOOCs are certainly India’s best chance, and perhaps its only hope, of catching up to China in higher education…. This revolution knocks down in a single blow the historical barriers to Indian higher education: uneven quality, overall lack of supply, and the high cost of sending a child overseas for study.”

Undoubtedly, MOOCs have the potential to do a lot of good. But they might also increase the digital divide—the gap between those who have access to technology and those who don’t. People without reliable Internet connections won’t be any better off with MOOCs. If anything, they’ll be pushed further behind, as their computer-owning, Internet-connected peers gain a leg up in the job market after taking free classes from American universities.

This isn’t a minor qualm. According to the International Telecommunications Union, 69 percent of the population in developing countries isn’t online in 2013. A gap exists in the United States, too. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 29 percent of households don’t have any type of Internet access at home. The rate is higher among low-income families and people living in rural areas.

Many facets of the ethical questions asked in this essay are relevant to education as a whole, not just to massive open online education. Still, the global scope and high goals of MOOCs require students, university administrators, and the companies involved in this initiative reason to consider these matters with a unique perspective.

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