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How MOOC Faculty Exploit People's Desire To Learn 115

Posted by timothy
from the not-exactly-the-stanford-prison-experiment dept.
RichDiesal writes "Just as businesses try to make something off of massively online open courses (MOOCs), so do the faculty running them. But instead of seeking money, MOOC faculty seek something far more valuable: a cheap source of data for social science research. Unfortunately, the rights of research participants are sometimes ignored in MOOCs, and successful completion of courses are sometimes held hostage in exchange for mandatory participation in research, as in this case study of a Coursera MOOC. Such behavior is not tolerated in "real" college courses, so why is it tolerated in MOOCs taught by the same faculty?"
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How MOOC Faculty Exploit People's Desire To Learn

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  • Sounds . . . (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mitchell314 (1576581) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @04:17PM (#45449953)
    Sounds like somebody has an axe to grind
    • Re:Sounds . . . (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 17, 2013 @04:30PM (#45450049)

      Sounds like somebody has an axe to grind

      He writes and sells books - http://www.amazon.com/Step-Step-Introduction-Statistics-Business/dp/1446208214
      MOOC's bypass the need for the books he sells.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Sounds like somebody has an axe to grind

        He writes and sells books - http://www.amazon.com/Step-Step-Introduction-Statistics-Business/dp/1446208214
        MOOC's bypass the need for the books he sells.

        Most MOOCs I've taken had a suggested reading list and many of the books are ones like his.

        In other words, MOOCs are an AWESOME way for promoting your book.

      • by mysidia (191772)

        He writes and sells books - http://www.amazon.com/Step-Step-Introduction-Statistics-Business/dp/1446208214 [amazon.com]

        The price seems insanely high for a 400 page 10x7 paperback book on basic statistics...

        • by fatphil (181876)
          His book on basic statistics is only $15, it's only his book on basic statistics *for business* that is $130.
          • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Monday November 18, 2013 @10:25AM (#45453993) Homepage

            Well you can't expect to get by with just learning about standard deviation. You need to upgrade to enterprise deviation if you're going to get anywhere in business.

            • Nor can you expect C-level execs to limit themselves to just the standard deviations. Some have more exotic tastes.

            • by mysidia (191772)

              Well you can't expect to get by with just learning about standard deviation. You need to upgrade to enterprise deviation if you're going to get anywhere in business.

              Dang... what edition is needed to add the discussion of the Central limit theorem, the Kelly criterion, Baye's law?

              Will another upgrade be required to add Probability distribution, the Monty hall paradox, the Birthday paradox, the accuracy paradox, Benford's law, Zipf's law, Regression towards the mean, the law of truly large numbers, Y

    • No no, I think it brings up an excellent point. (Okay maybe he does have an axe to grind, but does that excuse what's actually going on?)

      In a recent meandering about the nuances about cell phone plans, in an attempt to find the best one for the lowest cost, I came across fine print details about tethering. Pretty much all prepaid services (Net10, Straight Talk, Aio, iWireless, etc.) forbid tethering your cell phone to any other device. Which is... Well absurd when you think about it.

      But it's somehow lega

      • the cheap ones say no data cap and some do slowdown after X data use.

      • by Obfuscant (592200)

        Which is... Well absurd when you think about it.

        Not really. They're selling you a data plan with a price based on some assumptions about usage patterns. If you're tethering something, or serving as a NAP for other people, you're using more data.

        But it's somehow legal.

        As well it should be. It's a private contract between you and your service provider. They should be free to offer you service, just as you are free to decline to buy from them. Government intervention isn't always required, nor is it always a good thing. Personally, I think if you agreed to not tether your devic

    • Re:Sounds . . . (Score:5, Informative)

      by Mr. Slippery (47854) <tms.infamous@net> on Sunday November 17, 2013 @05:22PM (#45450319) Homepage

      Sounds like somebody has an axe to grind

      Good. Grind it to a fine edge and cut these fraudulent mofos down. MOOCs in general are 90% scam, nothing more than taking the old idea of a correspondence course and adding the phrase "...on the inernet!", and this one specifically is clearly engaging in unethical behavior:

      For example, in Week 4, the assignment was to complete this research study [link to a SurveyGizmo questionnaire about your gaming habits], which was not linked with any learning objectives in that week (at least in any way indicated to students). If you didn't complete the research study, you earned a zero for the assignment. There was no apparent way around it.

      In my experience on one of the human subjects review boards at my university, I can tell you emphatically that this would not be considered an ethical course design choice in a real college classroom.

      • It's funny how the guy first says "certificates are worthless" then gets mad because he's asked to do something he doesn't want to do to get the worthless reward. What does he lose by not doing the survey?

      • by eatvegetables (914186) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @11:27PM (#45451871)
        I have surveyed several coursera courses and completed a couple. Being a Comp Sci, telecoms professional, I derived tremendous value from Coursera material related to these disciplines. Only cost is my time. The video lectures are gold. Most classes that I've seen are project based. Learning is doing. In general, I've found that course difficulty usually floats somewhere between college senior and first year grad student. Some are just insanely hard. One has to accept that one bit of important material is missing, proofs. Just no way to auto-grade them, in general. I haven't seen anything to complain about.
        • by jrminter (1123885)

          I, too, have taken three Coursera classes for credit and done all the work. All three were well worth the effort. One was a teaser program for an expensive masters sponsored by the University. That was clear and did not diminish the value. Another was the first offering and was experimenting with peer grading. There were many problems with peer grading, but that did not diminish the value. I respect all three of the instructors and benefited greatly from the work and interaction.

          One must have reasonable exp

          • Same here, I completed two Coursera MOOCs this year and had no idea what to expect, but considering they were free and how much time I allocated was up to me, I would have been reasonably satisfied just to finish the courses with a passing grade. As it turned out, the quality of learning resources and interaction from fellow students was so outstanding, I felt excited to be a part of the experience and really motivated to make my best effort. Further, having almost 100,000 students sign up for one of the co
      • Ethical: put you in undischargeable debt equal to twice your future year yearly income as a precondition to being taught and having the university vouch for your completion.

        Not ethical: Require you to take a survey in order to get a certificate of completion in a free, unaccredited course.

        ???

      • by 0racle (667029)

        taking the old idea of a correspondence course and adding the phrase "...on the inernet!

        Except these are free, you can take any number you want on any subject you may be interested in and learn whatever you want.

        My god, the horror.

    • Not enough to actually bother replying in the thread!

      Go on, try it!

      Control-F Find for RichDiesal ... no comments!

      So no, he doesn't have an axe to grind because he put it away four minutes after he turned the grinder on!

      Unless he's lurking. Whatever.

      I just have less respect for submitters who don't actively respond to the threads.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 17, 2013 @04:19PM (#45449967)

    If it was a real experiment, they'd have to have an ethics review and all the details of the research would have to be disclosed to the participants. Since this is not happening, any data derived from the MOOC "research" is not ethically sound, probably completely invalid from a social science perspective, and should probably get Coursera in trouble with certain academic circles.

    • by JanneM (7445)

      Any research like this you will need to show you have IRB approval (or some equivalent) in order to get it published. No reputable journal will accept your paper unless you have it.

      But if this is not academic research but marketing research for hire then it's different. No intention to publish so no ethics approval needed.

    • by fermion (181285)
      There is no substance in the blog post, so it is unclear what is going on. This cannot be published research because the participants are not given a consent form detailing the parameters of the experiment and what is to be collected and what personal information will be exposed. Furthermore, as participation is mandatory any data will be suspect.

      Which leads me to believe that this is just some sort course development thing. This is quite common. For instance any time one takes a standardized test, be

    • by slew (2918)

      If it was a real experiment, they'd have to have an ethics review and all the details of the research would have to be disclosed to the participants.

      Not all research is scientific. Marketing research is real enough and nothing has to be disclosed or passed through an ethics review board, nor disclosed to participants. Arguably, some marketing research might have more effect on your real life than some "real" experiments (e.g., often influencing what you can buy, what is discontinued, features in new products, etc)...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I recall that in Psych 101 at my university in order to pass one had to do a certain number of hours of "research study participation". This entailed going to an office in the psych building and being a psych subject in some grad student's experiment. I don't remember anyone complaining too much about this.

    • by immaterial (1520413) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @04:28PM (#45450037)
      Because you also had the alternative option of writing an essay, or some such thing (but the experiments were far more interesting than writing yet another essay; who'd choose an essay?). I've never seen a psych department that doesn't offer alternatives, for this very reason. You can't force participation.
      • by zoward (188110)

        I was never offered an alternative when I took Intro to Psych, although this was back in 1986. Your "alternative" was: don't take Intro to Psych. They made it clear on the first day.

        • by wagnerrp (1305589)
          Considering the only people required to take Psychology are Psychology majors, it could be argued that taking part in some of these studies as the subject is a necessary experience prior to conducting them yourself.
    • My class had the same rule, except you could write a report on one of the chapters not covered if you refused to be a test subject. I had no desire to be a test monkey and told the professor I not going to do the punishment paper for refusing to be tested on. I got an A in the class so if it did count against my grade it didn't hurt my grade that much.
  • Quid Pro Quo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jim White (3435295) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @04:21PM (#45449985)
    It's tolerated for the same reason "free" services such as those provided by Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and most any other important social media company display ads and do data mining on visitor and subscriber behavior. The research being conducted with the data collected in MOOCs is one of the most socially valuable results possible since it leads directly to better education for the world. As Andrew Ng has stated plainly, his primary concern in participating in Coursera is delivering the best education possible to the world's poorest people. Coursera A/B tests most every aspect of the student learning experience and makes decisions based on what results in the best student learning outcome. Exactly what better system are you proposing?
    • It's also the same as a face to face course. When I teach a course I use student responses and feedback to improve the course the next time I teach it. While some of the feedback is voluntary, end of course questionnaires some of it is me looking at student responses to e.g. assignments and rewording questions to avoid common misinterpretations or looking at exam answers and adding or changing assignment questions to make students focus on concepts a large number had problems with.

      This is how teaching ha
      • by penix1 (722987)

        So then you wouldn't have too much of a problem when I give you nonsensical answers to your questions on your "required" questionnaire? The major difference is in traditional class there is oversight (ethics boards) that is non-existent in MOOC and the ability to opt out of it. As TFA states, students were required to populate a database essentially doing the researcher's work. Again, what is to say that I won't just throw all kinds of garbage in that? Then what value is that research when thousands do the

        • So then you wouldn't have too much of a problem when I give you nonsensical answers to your questions on your "required" questionnaire?

          If it's "required" then I don't see how you can stop someone doing that - which is a very good reason not to make it required without getting consent first.

          The major difference is in traditional class there is oversight (ethics boards) that is non-existent in MOOC and the ability to opt out of it.

          I don't understand - why can't you opt out of the MOOC? It's not like you are getting a qualification that is worth anything - all you get is the knowledge you learn from the course. If you don't feel like doing assignment X then just don't do it. So what if your course grade suffers - it's only meaning is to let you know how well you are doing with th

    • by dcollins (135727)

      " Coursera A/B tests most every aspect of the student learning experience and makes decisions based on what results in the best student learning outcome. "

      Citation needed? I'm really curious about this, because (for example) Udacity makes the same claims and on closer inspection it seems to be basically BS. So if there are concrete examples of how Coursera has done this, I'd like to read about it.

    • The research being conducted with the data collected in MOOCs is one of the most socially valuable results possible since it leads directly to better education for the world.

      This scans like marketing newspeak. Astroturf?

  • There are lots of services that one gets from the government which come with all sorts of catchs. Obviously you never read your student bullitin and talked to people who were expelled. What right did Brown University have in expelling Amy Carter?
  • Actually researchers are required by state laws and university guidelines to follow research consent laws regardless of whether they are done via the university or not. In this case however, the issue is blurred because it depends what the researcher is doing. The line between research using aggregated data and using platform BI tools to benchmark effectiveness are related things but different. It may not be easy to draw the lines as easily as before because data is used for everything now.

  • Fuck with their data. Give them false answers and rub it in.

    I almost never answer online marketing surveys truthfully, particularly when they are required for something they shouldn't be required for. It should be no different when academia does it.

    • by digitig (1056110)
      Exactly. I clicked through a few of the questions, and it was one of the few online contexts I can think of where pretending to be a teenage female gaming geek wouldn't get me into trouble.
    • YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!

      You should tell them what you honestly think.

      Remember Crystal Pepsi? Remember The New Coke? LOTS of people were surveyed before they decided to go forward with the products. They were all wrong! Answering counter to your opinion is probably giving them better data.

  • by ilsaloving (1534307) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @05:34PM (#45450383)

    Going to a brick and mortar univerrsity will cost you tens of thousands of dollars. How much do MOOCs cost you? Most likely the cost is zero.

    As someone who needed to spend years crawling out of my university debt, you would need to use an electron microscope to see the size of the violin I'm playing right now.

    Nothing in this world comes for free, nor should it. If you don't like it, then do without, you bloody self-entitled cheepskates.

    • by bunkymag (1567407)
      Not to derail your point which was well made - just posting a helpful picture of a cheepskate for those who similarly didn't know what it meant: http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/0b/81/55/0b8155879ce935c9785f63d17a290f06.jpg [pinimg.com] :D
  • by Anonymous Coward

    If they "force" you to participate in a study, simply give them garbage results. Choose options at random without reading the question. Deliberately choose false/wrong statements. Do whatever you can to ruin their data-set.

  • by Smallpond (221300) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @05:56PM (#45450471) Homepage Journal

    From the article: Instead of paying new employees during an onboarding and training period, business can now require employees to take a “free course” before paying them a dime.

    The next step is when companies start suggesting the problems they would like to have solved for course credit. The course is "free" to the participant,but somebody is paying the bills, and that somebody expects to get something of value.

    • free course is better then a high cost theory based degree with big skill gaps.

      • by Smallpond (221300)

        No it isn't. Skills become obsolete in a year. Theory never does.

        • but that Theory can also be part of skills based plan that does 4 years of pure class room. Why not have an apprenticeship system?

    • This works until the problems being solved for course credit become so complex/hard/boring/time-consuming that the number of participants drops to 0 and you have to decrease the course cost to negative figures just to get a handful of people to offer to enroll and complete the course... the eLance and vWorker universities are rather popular in developing nations... the StackOverflow university runs a similar model but they manage to run it on a revenue neutral basis to both sides

  • simple answer (Score:4, Interesting)

    by binarstu (720435) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @05:57PM (#45450473)

    From the original post: "Such behavior is not tolerated in "real" college courses, so why is it tolerated in MOOCs taught by the same faculty?"

    TFA answers the question quite nicely: "Despite a couple of years of discussion, the question of monetization remains largely unresolved. MOOCs are about as popular as they were, they still drain resources from the companies hosting them, and they still don’t provide much to those hosts in return." Good or bad, it's an attempt to try to get something useful in return for the effort it takes to create a MOOC course. It's as simple as that, and there's no reason to read anything more sinister into it.

    And let's not hyperbolically describe this as "holding the users hostage," okay? Users are free to leave the course whenever they want -- hostage situations don't usually work that way.

    • by hweimer (709734)

      And let's not hyperbolically describe this as "holding the users hostage," okay? Users are free to leave the course whenever they want

      Not if the forced study participation occurs halfway through the course when users have already invested significant ressources. As long as the annoyance being asked for is less than than the total amount of work invested, people will stay in whether they like it or not, making this approach highly unethical (unless it's clearly communicated before peple enroll).

  • by Gavrielkay (1819320) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @05:57PM (#45450475)
    Didn't someone point out that if you're getting something for free, you probably are the product? In the same way that Facebook happily sells your personal information to advertisers, these professors use your information for their own benefit. If you get something for (nothing | less than full price) it's probably in exchange for something else.
  • by thepainguy (1436453) <thepainguy@gmail.com> on Sunday November 17, 2013 @06:39PM (#45450677) Homepage
    "...successful completion of courses are sometimes held hostage in exchange for mandatory participation in research, as in this case study of a Coursera MOOC. Such behavior is not tolerated in 'real' college courses..."

    Signing up for one or more experiments was a requirement of every undergrad psych class I took.
    • Yep, that was my first thought. And they lied to you about what the tests were. Oh, they lied! "This is a test of your intelligence" turned out to be "This is a test of how people of one gender react to racially charged phrases compared to the other gender."
  • Horrible story text.

    I'm wasn't aware that universities had an existing policy in effect protecting non-tuititive students from forced enrolment of their metadata in minor research programs.

    Doesn't he have somewhere else to troll?

  • TINSTAAFL
    • Physics 101: dark energy is free.

    • TINSTAAFL

      Think Infinite Natural Supply To Act As Free Lunches.

      This is the Age of Information. Copies are in infinite supply, their price will be zero regardless of cost to create; Otherwise "piracy" could not exist.

      The bits are not scarce. Monetize what is scarce: The ability to create new configurations of bits, not the infinitely reproducible output thereof. Monetizing artificial scarce information is as untenable as selling ice to Eskimos.

      Econ 101, indeed.

  • Y'know, I was wondering which was going to win out- /.'s general disdain for Formal Education vs. /.'s worship of technology. Looks like MOOCs have been around long enough for /.ers to start thinking about them like the rest of Formal Education.

    If anyone's interested, we could probably find some open source software to run a betting pool on how /. will break in it's next article on MOOCs (my money's on "back to mindless adoration").
  • by tipo159 (1151047) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @10:35PM (#45451691)

    I took that first Thrun/Norvig pre-Udacity AI course. I have been taking one or two Udacity or Coursera courses per season since they started up. Before any of this, I was watching Stanford courses on iTunesU. Sometimes I complete the course. Sometimes I don't. But I almost always get something out of the courses. I am a mid-senior software engineer, but I still have plenty to learn.

    I have never been the kind of student who approached the professor outside of class, so I think that MOOCs are fine (I barely even use the MOOC forums.) Most of the problems that I have found with the MOOCs could have just as easily been a problem with an in-person course.

    For example, I recently took a Coursera Social Psychology course. It started off very interesting, but, about halfway through, it seemed clear to me that the lecturer had an agenda and the course veered into promoting the agenda (plus a little "help me refine some psychology software that I have been developing") over education on the topics. Since I was more than halfway through I finished watching all of the lectures, but found myself rolling my eyes more and more frequently. But, I have seen that kind of thing in in-person courses, as has my perpetual grad student brother.

    I have applied for the Udacity/GATech Online Master of CS program. If I get in, since I will be paying money, I will take it more seriously than I have the other MOOCs that I have taken.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is certainly allowed in college courses and is how I get the bulk of the subjects for my own research.

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