Even superprofessors deserve academic freedom.



Over on my personal blog, I write a lot about MOOCs. You might say I’m more than a little MOOC-obsessed, but I really am trying to develop other interests. That effort ran aground this week when a Massive Open Online Course at the University of Zurich basically imploded. It’s a confusing story (read about it here), but the best I can tell is that the professor leading that MOOC on “massive learning,” Paul-Olivier Dehaye, deleted its contents while in progress in order to protest the data collection policies of the MOOC provider that sponsored it, Coursera.

Since Dehaye has made no direct statement about his actions, the early reporting (and the Twitter speculation before anything got reported) included a number of other theories. Nevertheless, the definitive explanation for Dehaye’s actions appears to have been be the update Carl Straumsheim of Inside Higher Education made to the story linked above based upon a post that Dehaye made in a place that hardly anyone else read. The key part of that update reads:

Disappointed by how people in academe reacted to the Facebook experiment, Dehaye appears to have staged the experiment to raise awareness about the use of personal data.

“MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it,” Dehaye wrote. “I want to fight scientifically for the idea, yet teach, and I have signed contracts, which no one asks me about…. I am in a bind. Who do I tell about my project? My students? But this idea of the #FacebookExperiment is in itself dangerous, very dangerous. People react to it and express more emotions, which can be further mined.”

The goal of his experiment, Dehaye wrote, was to “confuse everyone, including the university, [C]oursera, the Twitter world, as many journalists as I can, and the course participants. The goal being to attract publicity…. I want to show how [C]oursera tracks you.”

I certainly have some sympathy with those sentiments even though I’m not sure bailing from your MOOC in midstream then making no general public pronouncement expressing those sentiments was the best way to express them. Nevertheless, I still wholeheartedly support Dehaye’s right to lodge some kind of protest against the way that Coursera operates.

Why on earth would a MOOC critic like me be sticking up for the rights of superprofessors? “Superprofessor,” if you don’t know it, is a term that I did not coin, but have been working to popularize over on my blog. It is a reference to the public face of any MOOC, the person who’s supposed to be the “best of the best” professors available. The name on the marquis that attracts tens of thousands of eyeballs to the course. While I am not a big fan of superprofessors in general, I am more than willing to defend their academic freedom in the abstract.

Yes, Dehaye might have asked more questions about what data Coursera would collect (and share with him) before he became a superprofessor, but even though he didn’t, it remains worth wondering what recourse he has. George Siemens, who actually invented MOOCs with some other very nice Canadian people, suggests that:

Coursera has been revealed as a house of cards in terms of governance and procedures for dealing with unusual situations. While Coursera promotes itself as a platform, something that I wrote about a few years ago, it is more Frankensteinian than functional. MOOCs were developed so quickly and with such breathless optimism that the architects didn’t pay much attention to boring stuff like foundations and plumbing. What is the governance model at Coursera? Is there anything like a due process to resolve conflicts? And a range of questions around content ownership and learner data.
[Emphasis added]

While I can’t answer George’s question, I would suggest that the superprofessors who choose to participate in the MOOC creation process better have a hand in determining that model or else many more of these kinds of courses will likely be canceled in the future.

As I’ve noted before , I have an article in the current issue of Academe titled “More than MOOCs.” In it I argue that the kind of issues that MOOCs raise at the universities that might choose to consume them, such as what should the prerogatives of professors in a technologically driven classroom, apply to a lot more technologies besides MOOCs. Indeed, the sheer variety of technological tools that professors have available to them makes it imperative that they have the academic freedom to pick which ones they want to use and which ones they don’t.

Superprofessors deserve this kind of academic freedom too – not just the freedom to determine the content that they teach, but to teach in an environment which they ultimately control. Give a for-profit private enterprise power over your virtual classroom, especially a massive virtual classroom, and that freedom becomes significantly more tenuous for all of us. Most of us faculty will never get the opportunity to teach a MOOC ourselves, but if the superprofessors of the world lose that freedom it will ultimately become harder for any of us to control the way we run our own courses, whether we teach online or off.