Dear Daphne

The following is an open letter to Daphne Koller, CEO of Coursera. I sent her also a copy via email.

Dear Daphne,

Please send the email below to the students of my course "Massive Teaching: New skills required" to the entirety of my class.
As you know, I am unable to send it now that my Coursera instructor rights have been removed.

Sincerely yours,

Prof. Paul-Olivier Dehaye
University of Zurich

Letter to Coursera students of "Massive Teaching: New skills required"

Dear students of "Massive Teaching: New skills required",

I must first apologize to you for what must have been a very confusing time. It was confusing for me too.

If you recall, my plan was for the course to span three weeks:

  • pedagogy;
  • technology and copyright;
  • business models, and science-fiction of MOOCs (i.e. utopia and dystopia)

I decided to give this course because I thought it would be important to inform widely on these topics, especially the third week. Coursera did not know what the content would be, and neither did I have the full picture: as advertised I would be responsive and adaptive to the issues arising on the forum. Coursera knew however that I would be critical then.

At the end of the first week, came disputed news report of a confusing ethical lapse at Cornell University and Facebook, in conducting a study on the influence of the Facebook newsfeed on users' emotions. The main thrust of the criticism addressed towards Cornell, a university, is that it cannot shield itself from ethical responsibility by claiming the data collection has been done at Facebook, a private organization. Some Maryland law professors are now even arguing this study might actually have broken state laws on human subjects research.

Since I had prepared the third week on business models, I knew right away that Coursera's partner institutions have subjected themselves to similar criticism. It is universally acknowledged that at least for the moment, universities lose money on MOOCs. In exchange, they get recognition, brand, reach, but also crucially access to data, the raw material driving an increasingly digital economy. Universities are more and more acting like businesses, and this data is key to them. All kinds of experiments are or will be performed around this data, to improve the core business of teaching. This means that universities play dual roles here, defending simultaneously research and business. This in itself is an ethical bomb, one that weakens the standing of universities in society. In the wake of the Facebook experiment it led me to cast an even more critical eye on the handling of your data, and to judge to the best of my ability that no proper procedures were in place. In fact, I could not rule out that I myself was party of an experiment without giving any informed consent.

This is the reason why I pulled content: academia and civil society need to have a global debate on the issue of data mining of students, for both commercial and research purposes. Regulations differ widely across the world, and creative but morally dubious solutions are being found. However much I would have liked, my course was not the proper place to initiate that debate since I am not qualified: the setting of a course on a commercial platform was too risky for me from a legal standpoint to even express doubts.

For this reason, I resolved to pull out the videos, and simplify the forum to the maximum, to just one thread. Both my university and Coursera were surprised, and reinstated content. I welcome any further clarification by my university and Coursera on what exactly happened after I pulled content, when I was prevented from fully explaining my views to you or the public.

Now that the university has clarified its position with me on the legal matters, I am glad to be able to get this message to you, via Coursera's messaging system. By definition this will have closed the first (reported) incident of censorship when teaching at Coursera.

Sincerely yours,

Paul-Olivier Dehaye

PS: Should you not be satisfied with this account, I have written a more detailed one here. You are welcome to criticize if this does not correspond to your recollection, but bear in mind the timeline. A lot of what you might have read afterwards was pure fabrication.

(EDIT November 14th: Note that this letter is destined to the 8000 or so students in my course, whom I have no way to contact otherwise. They all have very different backgrounds, which will differ substantially from your own.)

(EDIT Going against my request, this letter has NOT been sent to students in the course. There are several concrete reasons to think this is problematic and needs to be addressed. Among them are issues of sensitivity towards the students, academic freedom and free speech.)