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Learner Privacy in MOOCs and Virtual Education

With Helen Nissenbaum, Theory and Research in Education, November 2018


The current debate about student privacy issues raised by education technology focuses on how schools information with private vendors. It neglects a related but different trend, namely, the rise of online learning platforms offering learning experiences and credentials directly to users. These Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Virtual Education providers seek to 'disrupt' the traditional schooling system and position themselves as the next evolution in education.


With privacy as the lens, this article highlights problematic dimensions of virtual learning platforms, which fashion themselves as education providers while shaking off the normative and regulatory constraints of traditional educational institutions. Structuring our evaluation around the theory of contextual integrity, we argue that by adopting commercial marketplace norms, these providers undermine core functions and values of education, which include promoting democracy, equal access to opportunity, and self-actualization as well as economic growth.


Traditionally, the physical, normative, and regulatory constraints on school information practices created relatively hermetic learning environments. In contrast, Virtual Learning Environments automate instruction, maximize data collection, and codify learning outcomes according to the limited parameters of data-defined metrics and credentials. Because they collect information directly from learners without school mediation, independent Virtual Learning Environment providers fall outside the scope of student privacy regulation and can share information broadly without learner consent or consideration of educational purpose.


Our concern is that the new practices risk chilling expression; encouraging narrow viewpoints and filtering out intellectual exploration; exacerbate existing inequities by raising stakes and retaining longitudinal records; and reduce learning to a purely instrumental exercise focused on economic outputs and quantifiable outcomes. MOOCs and Virtual Education providers must go beyond compliance with data collection and use regulation to preserve the values supported by student privacy norms.

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