The fine print on the Coursera partner conference 2016

The Coursera partner conference is taking place March 20–22 in Leiden, Netherlands. Al Gore is speaking. How cool is that? I bet lots of people will post a picture of him. I am wondering if he will be introduced as a former U.S. Vice President, a Nobel prize winner, or a Coursera investor. I digress though…

I am really writing to add a bit more context to what was apparently said this Sunday in the research track, judging from the tweets so far.

I am glad Coursera has a new data policy. It is important however for this to be absolutely clear:

Coursera has so far not respected either US privacy laws for the educational sector or generic EU data protection laws. It hasn’t even tried to when challenged.

Indeed, exactly one year ago, I asked from Coursera’s lawyers, under FERPA, for access to all my personal information. Coursera simply responded FERPA did not apply to them. Because Coursera says so. Because Coursera calls those who take courses “learners”, just so they are not “students”. So no U.S. privacy law actually applies.

What about European law? On very many occasions between October 2014 and now, I have asked Coursera for access to data and information that I should get under the Safe Harbor arrangement on transatlantic data flows. This arrangement is meant to ensure an essentially equivalent level of data protection to that enjoyed in Europe, but is actually very difficult to enforce. Coursera has refused many of those requests, going as far as to argue that its Privacy Policy actually didn’t apply. Instead, what supposedly applies is what is hosted on a Federal Trade Commission site you have never heard of.

Coursera’s filing with the FTC. It’s essentially the same as that of a travel agency and of a hotel chain. This is actually exceptional out of the thousands of submissions on that site. Note the lack of cooperation with European data protection authorities.

Coursera can hope to get away with that gimmick because it is so hard to enforce a transatlantic arrangement depending on a very weak U.S. regime on data protection. The only option to enforce these rights is to actually sue them in an arbitration court in New York. I have been doing this now for the past 12 months, but can’t talk about the content of the arbitration since it is under a confidentiality clause. The judge would not be too happy.

Confidentiality clause for arbitration

So, what’s my point? Coursera is world leader in online higher education. It currently has millions of students, some with a lot less digital literacy than you. With its USD 170M of venture capital, Coursera can really affect the general direction of online education in the near future. This is its main conference. You are there. There are not that many participants. It is crucial that you be critical: think of the fine print.

Here is some food for thought.

A lot of discussions will certainly turn around the ethics of research. No doubt new problems will arise when you see techniques like this:

That’s ok, though, we have ethics review boards at universities to deal with the difficult questions raised by this uncertainty.

However, did anyone highlight the ethics of the research done by Coursera itself? The marketing research? The differential pricing? Does Coursera firewall financial aid data from differential pricing data? Now? Forever in the future?

Given that Coursera now collects data, and is not about to delete it, is it ethical for instructors to now teach on Coursera without some form of future-proof guarantee regarding data use? Is it ethical for universities to alter the model of research like this, and partner with an external commercial provider just so they can bypass regular ethics reviews and get access to data that would be much harder to obtain otherwise?

Doesn’t it look even worse for European universities, given that the legality of resharing MOOC data within Europe and among them is unclear? How can European universities let all the data of local students go to the US and spend millions to do research on a subset, which then enables Coursera to analyse the whole thing? Given the poor portability of research findings from one platform to the next, isn’t this a form of subsidy through public money of Coursera’s R&D?

Under the guise of innovation, many European universities have decided to actually jump on the Silicon Valley wagon. Who decides on the heading of that train? Can you affect its direction? What will you say when Coursera starts building the search engine it promised to build in their contract with your university? If Google is so powerful as a search engine on web content, how powerful do you think a search engine for people with given skills can be?

Will it be left to Coursera to decide what constitutes the “End User records” , and make a take-it or leave-it offer to students?
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