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MOOCs And Privacy, German Fears About Online Student Data

More and more universities around the world offer so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). With top Munich universities using the online education provider Coursera, doubts grow over security and the selling of customer data.

Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-University
Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-University
Johannes Boie and Hannes Grassegger

MUNICH — Hans Pongratz, acting Vice President of the Institute of Technology Munich (TUM), is delighted. He is recounting how a class that was attended by just 10 students, in which you learn how to teach a mini helicopter to fly on its own, was put online. Doing so resulted in 25,000 people from 170 countries viewing the video tutorial, and none had to move to Munich or even register at university.

This, Pongratz says, is the promise of democratization of knowledge in the digital age.

As is always the case whenever cultural offerings or a particular industry is digitalized, the potential reach becomes enormous. People who could never afford a flight to attend a class in Germany or the United States are now suddenly able to "study" at the universities of these advanced countries. People who don't have the time to go to a lecture can now watch one after work on their laptop.

The universities must devote plenty of extra work, editing videos and creating online exams and questionnaires; but once that work has been completed, there is no limit how many people it can reach. The courses offered by TUM alone have been viewed by over 100,000 people.

Such huge numbers have pushed another top university in Munich, the Ludwig-Maximilians-University (LMU), to also become one of the first in Germany to offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

The Bavarians are relying on the Californian start-up Coursera for the dissemination of their course contents. Along with the start-up UDacity, owned by the German Sebastian Thrun, and valued at over $1 billion, Coursera leads the growing industry in online learning. Coursera, in fact, likes to compare itself to Amazon. Big shoes to fill. But LMU's Wirsing is enthralled over how "amazingly approachable" they are.

And yet, when you digitalize learning, it also means that an awful lot of information is generated. But it is not only the students that can access outside information. Companies such as Coursera, which make the course materials available online and look after the students, also get access to a lot of information about their users. Which students study what? Who studies how much? Who studies fast and who studies slowly? What are the individual student's talents? Who is failing a course?

This data is sensitive, but also quite useful from Coursera's point of view. While Coursera earns money from students signing up to their courses, they also have the possibility to sell the student's data: to prospective employers, for example, who want to know how the applicant did during the course.

Safely stored?

Marit Hansen, State Commissioner for Data Protection in Schleswig-Holstein, analyzed the data protection regulations on Coursera's website and explains that "the data can be used for many other purposes according to U.S. law."

Until now, Coursera allowed universities to only access anonymous data to enable them to optimize their courses. The remainder of the data, however, is kept stored by the American company.

Is the data stored safely? An American professor who offered a course on Coursera managed to obtain large quantities of user data without too much difficulty. Coursera said that they improved their security and afterwards assured that the data leak had been solved. But is that truly the case?

Let us take a closer look at the provider chosen by the two Munich universities, LMU and TUM. Coursera has an eye-catching website that promotes their most popular courses with colorful pictures and promises in their slogan that you can "take the world's best courses, online." They are proud of the impressive number of 16.5 million students, and the nearly 1,500 courses on offer.

The cooperation between LMU and Coursera is, of course, based on a contract. But that contract may not be shown to journalists, since LMU says it has agreed to a confidentiality clause. When LMU asked Coursera if journalists may be given extracts of the contract, Coursera failed to grant or even answer their request by the time of printing. It does seem as if Coursera did not want the topic of data protection broached at all.

But the mathematician Paul-Olivier Dehaye tried to do exactly that. The junior professor, who currently teaches in Zurich, planned a Coursera course in mid-2014 — and offered the course on Coursera. But his aim of the course was actually to stand as a model for the freedom of teaching.

Dehaye planned to discuss with his students the conflict between the teaching mission of public universities and the aim of start-up Coursera, which is financed by venture capitalists. It was his thesis that everything — professors, students, teaching materials — absolutely everything is lucrative data.

Bad reputation

Dehaye ordered the entirety of the course data to be released to him at the beginning of his course in June to use it for research and teaching purposes, but the request was refused.

At the end of June he read about an experiment orchestrated by Facebook which sought to manipulate the mood of users. He examined Coursera's terms and conditions and found that these read pretty much like Facebook's. In a spontaneous act, Dehaye ordered his students to leave Coursera and he himself deleted all course materials. But by doing so he violated the terms of his contract with Coursera. But, surprisingly, all Coursera did was to give Dehaye a 24-hour ultimatum to restore all materials online.

But Coursera also took away the possibility to communicate with his students and explain his actions. Dehaye believes that employees of Coursera seized his online profile, as his posts were no longer visible for his students. His teaching license for Coursera was also summarily revoked, and the company terminated cooperation with Dehaye's university temporarily as a result, which left him in hot water with his superiors.

But Dehaye has chosen to defend himself against Coursera. Citing European Union law, in October 2014, he demanded the release of his personal data. Coursera has refused to release the entirety of his data.

Dehaye therefore sued Coursera in New York in March 2015. The professor says it is not only his own reputation at stake, but broader question of academic freedom in still unchartered waters of the digital world.

But LMU and TUM do not seem to share Dehaye's concerns. In the opinion of LMU's commission for data protection opinion, Coursera's offer is perfectly fine. TUM Vice President Pongratz acknowledges that there are challenges in data protection that need to be addressed, but he does not consider this to be a substantial problem, seeing as the offer was made voluntarily. No one is forced to complete a course with Coursera.

But for how much longer will that be the case? With digital learning bound to become part of our everyday life, new questions about privacy and economics will arise that we can't even imagine today.

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