More than two centuries after the original was signed in Pennsylvania, a new Bill of Rights has been drawn up.
Last December, in Palo Alto, 12 educators and experts in the field of online education drafted and signed a “Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age,” in light of the recent rise of massive online open courses like Coursera and Udacity.
Duke University English and Interdisciplinary Studies professor Cathy Davidson explained the reasoning behind the document: “there’s about an 80 to 90 percent dropout rate of people who sign up for massive open online courses or MOOCs. We all think [the retention rate] can be a lot higher. Penn has a retention rate of 90 percent [offline]. We don’t want to lose the excitement of this moment and have something be overhyped that doesn’t really pay off.”
One issue that the document addresses is data collection in the Internet age. To produce MOOCs at the moment is expensive, and most are free for users.
Engineering junior and the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education chair Michelle Ho — who has taken a Coursera course herself — isn’t worried about data privacy issues in the MOOC context.
“Penn is a partner university of Coursera, and these universities are already thinking of student privacy,” Ho said. “They are not really in the business of making money off of students; they really are institutions of higher learning.”
Engineering junior and PennApps Labs Technical Lead Kyle Hardgrave isn’t concerned about potential data gathering as long as it “isn’t hidden behind really obtuse terms of service.”
“It’s never really bothered me, especially since typically you’re getting these services for free,” said Hardgrave, who is also a former Daily Pennsylvanian lead web developer. “That’s where a lot of [these MOOCs’] monetization possibilities would come from, marketing students to employers or selling students textbooks and educational supplies, for example.”
Andrew Ng, one of the co-founders of Coursera and a professor at Stanford University, believes that “things like the Bill of Rights could be useful in articulating what [it means to serve students].”
“The fact that the MOOC movement today is led by top universities such as [Penn] also already offers students substantial protection, since these schools are already used to serving students and protecting students’ rights,” Ng said in an email.
Although most responses to the document have been positive, some take issue with its ideas and implications.
On Twitter, where supporters and detractors alike have taken to the handle #learnersrights, many reactions are mixed. Supra Manohar, @TheMindWire, tweeted, “Very ambivalent about #learnersrights are we breaking one hierarchy to create a new gen one #edchat #edreform …”
Freelance writer and Hack Education blogger Audrey Watters, who signed the original document, feels that the phrase “Bill of Rights” is problematic.
“You can imagine that Internet technology [is] globalizing great democratic values. But you can also see it as neo-colonialism,” Watters said. “I was incredibly uncomfortable with this thing being called a ‘Bill of Rights’ … talk about trying to center all values for teaching and learning not even based on American values, but based on Silicon Valley values.”
As of press time, the title of the “hackable” Google document has been changed to “Rights and Principles for Online, Networked Learning.”
Betsy Corcoran, the CEO and co-founder of EdSurge, an information resource on education and technology, also signed the document and urges students to get involved.
“If people are uncomfortable editing the document that we started, they can start another document,” she said.
Marylhurst University Director of English and Digital Humanities Jesse Stommel echoed this sentiment. “The part of the document I’m most attached to is towards the end, where it says, ‘Finally, and most importantly, this document can’t be complete (can never be complete) without continuous and dynamic contributions by students.’”