Are MOOC-Takers ‘Students’? Not When It Comes to the Feds Protecting Their Data

03 Dec

By Steve Kolowich

The U.S. Education Department wants to encourage colleges and the tech companies they work with to protect student data from misuse. But the agency’s power to protect the privacy of people taking free, online courses is essentially nonexistent.

“Data in the higher-education context for MOOCs is seldom Ferpa-protected,” Kathleen Styles, the Education Department’s chief privacy officer, said on Tuesday at a symposium on student privacy. In other words, people who take free online courses known as MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are not covered under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as Ferpa, which stipulates how colleges must protect the “education records” of their students.

That puts those taking MOOCs in a kind of limbo. They are not technically students, even though the courses are offered by colleges, some of which receive a portion of revenue from fees for certificates of completion.

The Education Department has little power to impose its own privacy standards in those courses, said Ms. Styles, “because MOOCs are seldom paid for with Title IV, government-funded dollars.”

Still, the issue is murky. The two highest-profile MOOC providers—edX, the nonprofit founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Coursera, the Silicon Valley company founded by Stanford University professors—actually disagree on whether Ferpa applies in free, online courses.

And edX is acting as if the law does apply.

“edX is subject to and will comply with all Ferpa requirements governing the use and redisclosure of personally identifiable information” it collects on MOOC registrants, according to an excerpt of edX’s standard agreement with its college partners, provided to The Chronicle by Tena Herlihy, the organization’s general counsel. The company also mentions the federal law in a privacy policy posted on its website.

[ Full article available at The Chronicle of Higher Education: ]

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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in Industry News, MOOCs in the News


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