A “Bill of Rights” For Online Users?

In an article for the Chronicle titled “‘Bill of Rights’ Seeks to Protect Students’ Interests as Online Learning Rapidly Expands,” Steve Kolowich discussed the event that took place last month in Palo Alto, Calif., where educators met to discuss the future of higher education, drafting a document focused on citizenship.  Kolowich reports that 12 educators, many of them well known in online-education circles, attempted to draft a document that could provide a framework for protecting the interests of students as online education and MOOC’s “hurtles into a new phase.”

Titled “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age,” the document proposes a set of rights that, as Kolowich comments, the authors say “students and their advocates should demand from institutions and companies that offer online courses and technology tools.”  The article expresses the authors’ hope that the document will frame the standards and expectations that “guide universities and their constituents as online tools and platforms become part and parcel of traditional higher education.”

Cathy Davidson, an English professor at Duke University who helped write the document, said that it is the “excitement surrounding MOOCs and the blending of business interests with traditional, mission-driven higher education threatens to obscure educators’ obligations to students.  The idea is to have a larger conversation about this so that MOOCs don’t become the Facebook or Instagram of higher education—where you sign up for some free service and it turns out that you’re the product being sold.”

Kolowich states that the best-known signatory of the document is also perhaps its most surprising: Sebastian Thrun, a pioneer of MOOC’s and founder of Udacity.  While there might seem to be a conflict of interests here, Kolowich quotes Thrun, who said he wanted to reorient the conversation about MOOCs to focus on pedagogy rather than economics: “It’s time for people to speak up [about] what the pedagogical objective really is, because we are trapped in a world that is excited about the enrollment numbers.”

Thrun said he hoped the proposed bill of rights would put pressure on the education-services industry, but also on traditional colleges and universities. When it comes to how they determine prices for online courses and where students’ money goes, he said, some institutions are less than forthcoming: “There’s a whole bunch of universities that use online education as a cash cow.  One of the questions that has arisen is that, if you can actually save money online, can you pass along those savings to the student?”

In another article, posted the same day for the blog Wired Campus, Kolowich wrote on the criticism that the authors of this “Bill of Rights” are facing.  He writes that since the document hit the web on Wednesday (1/23), it has drawn skepticism, even from “activists who would have made useful allies.”

From an interview with The Chronicle, Kolowich paraphrases Stephen Downes, an academic technologist who helped pioneer the earliest MOOC’s, who said that “in addition to taking issue with some of the ideas in the document, the details of its development and unveiling—an exclusive drafting session followed by a tightly controlled public release—did not square with its purportedly populist aims,” claiming the document to be “artificial” and “manipulative,” commenting that “something like this should originate from students themselves” rather than a “selected group of experts.”

Kolowich concluded the article by noting that the authors have posted copies of the “bill of rights” on several public-editing Web sites, and have asked for feedback – writing in a postscript: “This document can’t be complete (can never be complete) without continuous and dynamic contributions and revising by students.”

Check out Scoop.it for a great collection of responses to this document and join in on the conversation!

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