Authors of ‘Bill of Rights’ for Online Learners Face Criticism

The academics and technologists who drafted a recently released “bill of rights” for students taking online courses said they hoped the document would serve as a foundation for a broader conversation about how learners and institutions might protect themselves from exploitation.

But since it hit the Web on Wednesday, the document, “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age,” has drawn skepticism—including from academic activists who would have made useful allies.

“It’s pretty top-down and manipulative,” Stephen Downes, an academic technologist who helped pioneer the earliest massive open online courses, wrote in his widely circulated newsletter.

Mr. Downes expanded on his criticism on Thursday in an interview with The Chronicle. In addition to taking issue with some of the ideas in the document, he said the details of its development and unveiling—an exclusive drafting session followed by a tightly controlled public release—did not square with its purportedly populist aims.

“It’s very artificial,” Mr. Downes said. At a minimum, “something like this should originate from students themselves,” he said, rather than a “selected group of experts.”

A screen shot of the public draft of the “bill of rights.”

The fact that the drafting group convened at the behest of Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, a for-profit MOOC provider, also raised eyebrows—especially since Mr. Thrun said his company had no plans to adopt any part of the document as policy.

Ian Bogost, a professor of literature, media, and communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, pointed out that the document calls upon the purveyors of online education to exercise “financial transparency”; meanwhile, Udacity this month declined to disclose the financial details of its new alliance with San Jose State University when asked by The New York Times.

“Even if there are valid reasons for that lack of transparency, by framing that virtue as an aspirational one, the company successfully escapes any accusation of hypocrisy,” Mr. Bogost wrote in an e-mail interview.

The “bill of rights” does not have any regulatory teeth, which means its practical relevance may depend on whether academics and student advocates bring its principles to bear in governance decisions at their institutions. If it turns out that other academic technologists share the skepticism of Mr. Downes and Mr. Bogost, the document’s authors may face an uphill climb in rallying support.

The authors have posted copies of the “bill of rights” on several public-editing Web sites, and have asked for feedback.

“This document can’t be complete (can never be complete) without continuous and dynamic contributions and revising by students,” they wrote in a postscript.

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