A dozen educators met last month in Palo Alto, Calif., to discuss the future of higher education. They had been convened at the epicenter of technological innovation in higher education by Sebastian Thrun, a pioneer of massive open online courses, and yet the task at hand had nothing to do with software or strategy. It had to do with citizenship.
The Philadelphia Convention, it was not. But the 12 educators, many of them well known in online-education circles, did manage to draft a document that they hope will serve as a philosophical framework for protecting the interests of students as online education, propelled and complicated by the rise of MOOCs, hurtles into a new phase.
Called "A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age," the document proposes a set of "inalienable rights" that the authors say students and their advocates should demand from institutions and companies that offer online courses and technology tools.
Those rights should include access and privacy, along with access to information about the financial models of institutions and companies offering online courses, write the authors.
Mr. Thrun, the founder of the MOOC provider Udacity, said his involvement in drafting the document does not amount to a pledge or endorsement by his company. And despite the legislative reference in the document's title, the "bill of rights" does not have regulatory teeth.
Still, its authors hope the document will frame the standards and expectations that guide universities and their constituents as online tools and platforms become part and parcel of traditional higher education.
Online education has been around for decades, but the excitement surrounding MOOCs and the blending of business interests with traditional, mission-driven higher education threatens to obscure educators' obligations to students, said Cathy Davidson, an English professor at Duke University who helped write the document.
"The problem is, it's been such a short time span and there's so much hype around MOOCs, and some of the terms and agreements around MOOCs are so ill defined and changing and amorphous that no one knows what the business models are" or what rights students have as consumers, Ms. Davidson said.
"The idea is to have a larger conversation about this so that MOOCs don't become the Facebook or Instagram of higher education—where you sign up for some free service and it turns out that you're the product being sold," she said.
The authors of the document express particular concern about the opportunity for online providers to collect and profit from data and content submitted by users. "Students have a right to know how data collected about their participation in the online system will be used by the organization and made available to others," they write. "The provider should offer clear explanations of the privacy implications of students' choices."
Students should also own the intellectual-property rights to any content they create by participating in online courses, the authors add. And online providers that offer the promise of some kind of credential or badge for completing coursework should be able to give students some indication of its "authenticity, meaning, and possible recognition by others."
Reorienting the Conversation
The best-known signatory of the "bill of rights" is also perhaps its most surprising. To the extent that the document regards for-profit purveyors of online education as a potential threat to students' rights, Mr. Thrun would seem to be the subject of the authors' demands, in addition to being an author himself.
The Udacity founder said he had no objection to that. He said he wanted to reorient the conversation about MOOCs to focus on pedagogy rather than economics.
"It's time for people to speak up [about] what the pedagogical objective really is, because we are trapped in a world that is excited about the enrollment numbers" primarily, Mr. Thrun said in an interview.
Mr. Thrun, whose company makes money by helping companies recruit students who have opted into Udacity's job-placement program, said he hoped the proposed bill of rights would put pressure on the education-services industry, but also on traditional colleges and universities. When it comes to how they determine prices for online courses and where students' money goes, he said, some institutions are less than forthcoming.
"There's a whole bunch of universities that use online education as a cash cow," said Mr. Thrun. "One of the questions that has arisen is that, if you can actually save money online, can you pass along those savings to the student?"
Andrew Ng, a co-founder of Coursera, another for-profit MOOC provider, said he too was pleased by the idea of articulating and respecting the rights of online students.
"The idea of listing some of the rights we'd like to confer to students is a good one," he said via e-mail. "Fortunately, today's MOOC movement is already led by many of the world's top universities, which are used to serving students and respecting students' rights."