Coursera, or Socrates was not a Content Provider: The University of Toronto and Coursera Agreement

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

The Globe and Mail reported recently that the University of Toronto was the latest signatory to an agreement with Coursera, a Web-based educational content provider aiming to “give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few”. Created by two Stanford computer scientists, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, Coursera offers Internet users free access to academic material created by volunteer instructors from various public and Ivy League universities from the United States, Switzerland, and now, with the University of Toronto as a member, Canada. Backed by a U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis of research comparing, and measuring the efficacy of, online education and face-to-face education – presumably to dispel myths propagating the former’s deficiencies – Coursera’s ambitious goal is to democratize higher education using the power of Internet connectivity.

U of T’s Vice-Provost Cheryl Misak explains that U of T’s move to offer free online courses through Coursera was mainly for promotional and brand-management purposes, declaring in a recent Globe and Mail article that “it’s great to be aligned with Stanford and Princeton,” that Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms like Coursera “dramatically increase the visibility of [a university’s] brand,” and that it’s an ideal way to expose the world to the virtuosity of faculty Though I cannot help but agree with Siva Vaidhyanathan when he reminds us that “once you consider a university a “brand,” you have lost,” the point of this post is not to evaluate the merits of technologically-mediated education, but to seriously question the motives behind Coursera, and the consequences it may have for its users and for faculty and students at the University of Toronto. Despite Misak’s comments, which readily imply that the educational process and its agents can be best understood and managed using business principles and methods, there is a related concern regarding Coursera’s motives that is but a variation on a similar theme, what David Noble has identified as the ongoing “commodification of educational instruction.”

This is because Coursera is marketed as an educational tool, yet has all the telltale signs of a profit-driven organization that sees “education for its own sake” as secondary to the capitalization of learning. Is Coursera an authentic, technologically-mediated educational tool organized around the educational process, thereby preserving its status as a public good by virtue of its wider accessibility? Or does Coursera represent the dismantling of publicly-owned space by private interest outsourcing, thus transforming higher education from a public good into a commodity to be bought and sold? The answer, as always, does not reveal itself in either of these questions alone, but they do add fuel to the flame of the distance education debate, which has been burning since the nineteenth century.

My initial analysis of Coursera’s terms of use and privacy policy tells a very different story from its clear and well-intentioned mission objectives. I fear that the hype surrounding the novelty of this service has concealed from view the actual social arrangement that these documents define. What seems to be forgotten in this latest iteration of Education 2.0 is that Coursera is first and foremost an entrepreneurial company, not an educational entity per se. They make this quite clear in their terms of use; so what are its interests? Taking a look at their terms of use (TOS) and privacy policy (PP) provides some clues. Because Coursera mediates between instructor/university and user/student communication, we are dealing with at least four major relationships: user-Coursera, Coursera-instructor/university, user-Coursera-instructor/university, and vice versa. I am mainly focusing on the user-Coursera relation (terms of use and privacy policy), but it should be noted that these are really only separable at the analytical level. In reality, all of these relations are in play at any given time.

There is a glaring contradiction that presents itself in the legal documentation users agree to when using Coursera. The PP and TOS together pose risk to not only the openness of the educational process, but also to academic freedom, user privacy, and free speech, i.e., essential preconditions of the educational process, which Coursera purports to value. What is more is that there is evidence to suggest that the company’s interest also lies in commodifying the communicational labour created by university instructors and students in this environment. The intermediary role Coursera plays, between instructor and student, does not open educational processes, but encloses it by imposing rights of ownership over content and control over communicational flow. Allow me to elaborate by drawing examples from Coursera’s TOS and PP:

1. Neither the User Content (as defined below) on these Sites, nor any links to other websites, are screened, moderated, approved, reviewed or endorsed by Coursera or its participating institutions. …

Coursera reserves the right (but not the obligation) to remove any content from such forums in its discretion.

The two underlined clauses contradict one another. To suggest that Coursera has a right to censor forum content is to imply a degree of screening and moderation and vice versa. Nonetheless, I wonder if the latter clause gives Coursera an excess of power to censor user posts and to moderate discussions. Often times, courses touch on sensitive matters that are controversial to some. Should the site provider have the right to remove material related to matters of controversy they find unacceptable? Are they qualified – and indeed should they have a right to – censor conversation that is conducted in an educational context? Is this commensurate with educational objectives? One objective of education is to confront controversial issues that may incite others to anger, frustration, and reaction; but, does this clause warrant the site provider to censor forum dialogue? No such right to censorship, notwithstanding hate speech, exists in the classroom as far as I know.

2. Further, you agree that you will not use the Site for organized partisan political activities.

I have never seen this clause in a TOS before. I wonder to what degree this is actually legally or otherwise enforceable. How does Coursera determine what is organized partisan political organizing? This clause is somewhat disturbing, and it raises questions regarding free speech and the ability for users to form online public spheres for the purposes of critical discussion. What harm could befall Coursera by allowing this:You further agree that you will not e-mail or post any of the following content … anywhere on the Site, or on any other Coursera computing resources:

3. Material that contains obscene (i.e., pornographic) language or images

 Although Coursera does not routinely screen or monitor content posted by users to the Site, Coursera reserves the right to remove Prohibited Content of which it becomes aware, but is under no obligation to do so.

 I wonder to what extent these rules of conduct work against educational dialogue; in particular, the clause on obscene (pornographic) content. What if a group of users begin a thread on pornography, or any other controversial matter? Notwithstanding the possibility that Coursera may explicitly avoid adopting courses that would touch on “obscene” subjects, it is possible that, via other courses offered, obscenity may come up and users may want to discuss it. The presence of this section is troubling in terms of free speech rights and the ability for people to openly communicate in the learning process.

4. Coursera and the instructors of the Online Courses reserve the right to cancel, interrupt or reschedule any Online Course or modify its content as well as the point value or weight of any assignment, exam or other evaluation of progress.

Why does Coursera have the right to modify both the course content and the grading parameters? Should not the right to cancel or modify course content be the purview solely of the instructor, since they are the course creators and knowledge experts? This clause is evidence of a tension found throughout the TOS: the ambivalence of Coursera’s role relative to the participant universities and the site’s users. In other words, what role is Coursera really playing with respect to users and content creators? At times Coursera is clear that they are a service provider – thereby distancing itself from the instructor/course creator role. Yet, as evidenced here, they want to have direct control over content they are distributing. I wonder what this means in terms of free speech, the intellectual property rights of the instructors as knowledge creators, and academic freedom.

5.  All content or other materials available on the Sites, including but not limited to code, images, text, layouts, arrangements, displays, illustrations, audio and video clips, HTML files and other content are the property of Coursera and/or its affiliates or licensors and are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights under the United States and foreign laws.

Here we find the pervasive commodification clause, or you own your content, but we may do what we like with it” clause commonly found in TOSs and PPs, along with the restrictions of user rights to the use and dissemination of Coursera’s content. However, the additive clause “and other content” is somewhat vague and troubling. Does this mean they also own whatever user-generated content is produced on the site?

6. With respect to User Content you submit or otherwise make available in connection with your use of the Site, and subject to the Privacy Policy, you grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions a fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, sublicense, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content. …

By submitting the Feedback, you hereby grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions an irrevocable license to use, disclose, reproduce, distribute, sublicense, prepare derivative works of, publicly perform and publicly display any such submission.

The obligatory “commodification/alienation” clause often found in other TOSs and PPs like Facebook and Twitter’s. I wonder to what extent Coursera is considering monetizing online content produced by users, beyond obtaining the right to use user-generated content for administrative purposes. In any event, this section sets the preconditions for doing both.

The rights granted by Coursera for Coursera, as outlined in these documents do not seem to be commensurate with a space of learning and discovery. Again, the evidence suggests that Coursera is more interested in “enclosing the common” of communication by commodifying the educational process. Further, there are a number of communicatio restrictions enacted on users by Coursera. These restrictions are troubling in terms of educational communication and free speech. If education is a primary function of this online service – which I believe it is not – then Coursera must do a better job of creating a communicative space where no restrictions exist. Clamping down on the ability for people to learn through open communication can only be achieved by maintaining a high degree of relative freedom for people to create public spheres and discuss matters autonomously. Coursera seems to want to have the luxury of controlling the conversation when it needs to rather than having its users do so. It is difficult to view Coursera as a mere content provider when they take so active a role in the educational process and the communicationflow between participants.

What is also found in these documents is the same “mandatory volunteerism” present in other online service arrangements. Users who seek the benefits of the service provided cannot negotiate the terms of use or the handling of their information; they may only accept them or reject them in toto. Is this a fair arrangement? What do users give up when registering for this service?

Insofar as universities have made a decision to offer their instructors’ services to Coursera, they are also equally implicated in strengthening the private interests of Coursera over the public good, which always brings to the fore questions pertaining to academic freedom and autonomy.  Coursera, and indeed online, distance education generally, ceases to understand education as a process of learning and interprets it as one of accumulation. The TOS and PPs establish the preconditions for capital accumulation by commodifying communication. Coursera also internalizes, by its very form as a content-distribution platform, a particularized view of what education is, one that is suspiciously commensurate with neoliberal doctrine. This view frames education as something that is immediately quantifiable, measurable, and, therefore, saleable.

Again, the above observations are preliminary, and refined analysis of this complicated situation is warranted.  It should be noted that the agreement between Coursera and the University of Michigan has been made public through a Freedom of Information request recently submitted by the Chronicle of Higher Education. This agreement is evidence that Coursera is still in the process of trying to determine a monetization strategy that would financially strengthen the company. A number of these proposed plans directly implicate Coursera users as essential to the company’s financial success. I have recently submitted a Freedom of Information request to the University of Toronto for access to the newly signed agreement between them and Coursera. I fear that the U of T/Coursera agreement does not differ in any significant way. As such, it is crucial that we pay close attention to the fine print, something unfortunately overshadowed by the immediacy and novelty of Web 2.0 solutions and the latest trends in brand management techniques.

Craig Butosi is a Western University graduate student in Media Studies who will be starting a PhD in York University’s Communication and Culture program in the fall of 2012. His research centres on the critical political economy of communication, at present focusing on online social networks and how their terms of use and privacy policy together establish a new employment relationship between social net-workers and site providers. He can be reached at

Photo: Coursera Co-Founder Daphne Koller, by Dawn Endico. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Generic 2.0 license.