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Silfen University Forum 2013 Credit: nick moncy , Nick_Moncy

Last month, Coursera, a pioneer of massive open online courses, announced that it would begin partnering with a major Chinese internet company, opening the door to MOOCs for millions of students in China.

For some Penn professors, Coursera’s announcement also opened the door to a host of potential problems.

As Coursera moves headfirst with open learning in China, a country where academic freedom remains a contentious issue, some faculty members are concerned by cases of MOOC censorship that may arise.

For these professors, many questions remain unanswered. Will courses on subjects like American democracy be taken down by the Chinese Communist Party and, if so, how will Coursera partners like Penn respond? What about a MOOC on the history of China that spends several lectures discussing Tiananmen Square? More generally, does a MOOC professor have any less academic freedom in an online setting than in an offline one?

“These academic freedom concerns are real,” Law School professor Edward Rock, Penn’s director of open course initiatives, said. “I don’t think the right way to handle these concerns is simply to stay out of the market in which we’re likely going to confront them for the first time.”

A cautious partnership

Penn, which began partnering with Coursera in the spring of 2012, is moving cautiously forward into China.

The University, Rock said, was at first lukewarm on the idea of working with Coursera in China. When Coursera first announced its partnership with NetEase, the Chinese internet provider, Rock said he was reluctant to bring Penn into the fold. Opting out of the NetEase agreement, he reasoned, would be a convenient way for the University to avoid a messy political situation that is bound to come to a head.

“At some point, we all know that the Chinese government is going to do something,” Rock said. “It’s going to be offended by somebody’s course, maybe one of our courses, and at the time they decide it’s not an appropriate course, they’ll order NetEase to discontinue it.”

Coursera’s decision to partner with NetEase was motivated in large part by issues of access. The main draw of the partnership, Coursera said in a statement last month, is that it will increase the speed with which Chinese students can stream and download online lectures and course materials. Because Coursera, like other foreign websites, tends to load slowly in China, it has had trouble breaking through in the country, which offers a MOOC audience of millions.

Related: High schools to use Penn coursera classes

By working with NetEase, Coursera expects that Chinese students will now be able to download MOOC lectures at normal speeds. Through the partnership, NetEase is also hosting a new website called Coursera Zone, a Chinese-language portal that will translate existing Coursera content into Chinese.

A small number of Coursera’s partner institutions — less than 5 percent — have opted out of the arrangement with NetEase. Coursera, which declined to comment for this article, has not disclosed the names of those institutions.

While Penn has not made a final decision on the NetEase partnership issue, the Provost’s Office is hopeful that individual faculty members will, on a course-by-course basis, be able to choose whether or not to host their materials on Coursera Zone, Rock said. Several peer institutions that partner with Coursera, including Duke and Stanford universities, have made similar decisions.

No Penn courses are currently being offered on Coursera Zone in China.

“In the end, I think what Coursera is all about in the international space is providing high-quality instruction and access,” Rock said. “Institutionally, we’re concerned enough about these political and academic freedom problems that we want to proceed slowly with this — but we are proceeding.”

‘Be prepared to walk away’

Some professors, though, say they are concerned about what might happen once Penn-created MOOCs are first offered under Coursera’s new China partnership.

“To go out of our way to imperil our own academic integrity strikes me as puzzling, and that’s what this seems to be doing,” English professor Peter Conn, who has been a vocal critic of institutional partnerships with China, said.

It is likely that Penn will handle any academic freedom issues that arise in China on a case-by-case basis, Rock said. Conn, however, said he believes it is critical for the University to stake out its position on academic freedom early on.

“I’m a bit troubled by the notion that we’d be dealing with our core mission, academic freedom, in an ad-hoc manner,” Conn, a former deputy and interim provost of Penn, said. “We need to codify in as much detail as possible what our core principles are and demand that those principles be respected. If they’re not, we need to be prepared to walk away.”

Related: Wharton to feature core courses on Coursera

Other professors say that self-censorship — tailoring course content in anticipation of an audience reaction — may become a problem with Coursera in China.

“For many faculty, there’s an element of self-censorship when we present things to students, both at Penn and online,” Rebecca Stein, a senior economics lecturer who has taught a Coursera course on microeconomics, said. “The question then becomes one of whether this self-censorship may be exacerbated by the move into China. I think it might be.”

Peter Struck, a Classical studies professor who has taught a MOOC on Greek and Roman mythology, disagrees.

“I don’t see self-censorship as a risk, because I can’t imagine a colleague I’ve ever met making that sort of calculation to appease a foreign government,” he said. There is a difference, Struck added, between self-censorship and tailoring one’s course to an international audience.

“I’m confident that faculty who are teaching these courses are making judgments about who their audience is, irrespective of academic freedom,” he said.

As long as Penn makes clear its commitment to academic freedom, said Kevin Werbach, a legal studies and business ethics professor who has taught a MOOC on gamification, it makes little sense to stay out of China.

Werbach first taught his gamification course in the fall of 2012. At one point, when he looked through his course registration data, he was surprised to see how few of his students were based in China — less than 1 percent of the course’s total enrollment.

“If I were Coursera,” Werbach said, “I’d much rather make the vast majority of course material more accessible in China, rather than refuse on principle to make it available unless the Chinese government agrees not to do what it’s almost certain to do.”

Education, not real estate

While the issue of academic freedom in China has been a hotly debated one among MOOC professors at Penn, it has picked up surprisingly little traction among the faculty as a whole, Rock said.

Part of that, he guessed, might have to do with the fact that Penn — compared to peer institutions like Duke and New York universities, which have been aggressive in the international arena — has moved more gingerly into China. Because the Dukes and NYUs of the country have more of a physical presence abroad, Rock said, international academic freedom is bound to be more of a public issue on their campuses, compared to Penn.

Although Penn has no plans to open a branch campus — Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel has said in the past that Penn is “in the education business, not in the real estate business” — some professors say that Coursera’s international push will be a good opportunity for the University to test the waters of academic freedom in China.

“I see it as almost a way to be an irritant to the Chinese system,” Jonathan Moreno, a professor of ethics who has taught a Coursera course on neuroethics, said. “It’s a way for them to have to confront these issues head on.”

If — or when — a Coursera course is taken down by the Chinese government, it is unclear what the University might do. At some level, Rock said, choosing to censor a MOOC that was deemed offensive is the Chinese government’s decision to make.

“The question then becomes one of how we as an institution respond,” he said. “I don’t know what the right answer to that is yet.”

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