Sexual Harassment in the Age of MOOCs

Following an internal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Tuesday severed ties with Walter Lewin, a retired physics professor known for his lively lectures and live demonstrations.

The story of the professor who makes sexual advances on his students is as old as academe itself, but this one was unusual because of its ultramodern setting: the free online courses known as MOOCs.

But even old problems are made new by the dynamics of MOOCs, where professors often preside over thousands of far-flung learners whom they will never meet in person.

Here is what is happening at MIT, and what it means:

What exactly did Mr. Lewin do?

We’re not sure, and MIT is not getting specific. In a news release, the university refers to a complaint it received from a female online learner, who claimed he had sexually harassed her online and who also provided information about “interactions between Lewin and other women online learners” that MIT deems to have violated its sexual-harassment policy.

According to the MIT policy, sexual harassment can mean “unwanted physical contact, requests for sexual favors, visual displays of degrading sexual images, sexually suggestive conduct, or offensive remarks of a sexual nature.”

Mr. Lewin did not return a phone message. An email sent to his university account was returned with a note saying that the account is “undergoing maintenance and can’t accept messages now.”

So, these women aren’t MIT students?

No. Mr. Lewin has been retired from MIT since 2009. He returned to help the university develop MOOCs, which take online lecture videos—the medium that catapulted Mr. Lewin to renown in the 2000s—and add interactive elements such as quizzes and message boards. The women he allegedly harassed were learners in those online courses, which are open to anyone.

Participants in MOOCs probably do not enjoy the same federal protections as do students enrolled in tuition-based programs, but some colleges have decided to treat them as if they do. For example, some colleges offering free online courses say they handle student data according to federal student-privacy standards, even though they may not be legally obligated to do so.

An MIT spokesman could not immediately confirm on Tuesday whether the university was legally obligated to respond to claims of sexual harassment from online learners who are not enrolled as students at MIT but who take classes through its edX platform.

L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, indicated in a statement that the university was nevertheless interested in creating a safe learning environment in its MOOCs. “We must take the greatest care that everyone who comes to us for knowledge and instruction, whether in classrooms or online, can count on MIT as a safe and respectful place to learn,” said Mr. Reif.

Does edX have its own standards for how MOOC instructors should behave?

The edX terms of use prohibit “content that defames, harasses, or threatens others,” as well as “pornographic, obscene, indecent, or unlawful content.” Those terms apply to instructors as well as learners, said Tena Herlihy, edX’s general counsel, in an email. She added that edX reserves the right to take a university’s courses off its platform.

In this case, however, the decision came from the university. “MIT received the complaint, conducted the investigation, and managed all of the follow-up, including asking edX to take down the courses,” wrote Ms. Herlihy.

So, Mr. Lewin’s online lecture videos are gone?

Some are still available on MIT Open Courseware’s YouTube channel, although those might soon be removed. People are legally allowed to copy, share, and “remix” the videos according to their Creative Commons license, and many probably have already, so it is unlikely the videos will disappear from the web entirely.

But the university seems determined to remove as much of the professor’s online course content as possible. David Pritchard, a professor of physics at MIT who has also been involved with MOOCs, said he had been urged to remove lecture videos featuring Mr. Lewin that Mr. Pritchard has been using to teach certain concepts in his own online course.

Mr. Pritchard, who does not have direct knowledge of the investigation into Mr. Lewin’s conduct, said MIT’s response was “conservative and appropriate.” But the physics professor added that he hoped the university would make Mr. Lewin’s lectures available in the future. “These things are really valuable,” he said.

Nathaniel Nickerson, MIT’s associate vice president for communications, told The Chronicle that he was not worried that the videos would be lost to the world. Two websites, Academic Earth and, have Mr. Lewin’s entire catalog, said Mr. Nickerson. “We have no intention of asking them to take the lectures down,” he said.

What is the difference between online sexual harassment and in-person sexual harassment?

If any college has separate policies for online and in-person harassment, I couldn’t find it. But research suggests that people might perceive harassment differently in virtual settings.

In a 2002 study, University of Akron researchers found that undergraduates judged misogynist comments, nicknames like “sweetheart” and “honey,” and comments about dress to be more harassing online than in person. Only requests for company were taken to be less harassing online. Also, male subjects tended to rate “online pictures and jokes” as less harassing than female subjects did.

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