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.

5 Responses to “Coursera, or Socrates was not a Content Provider: The University of Toronto and Coursera Agreement”

  •  by Mark A. McCutcheon

    I welcome and appreciate this detailed critique of Coursera and the problematic role it and similar private enterprises play in public higher education. I wish only to disagree with the claim that “online, distance education generally, ceases to understand education as a process of learning and interprets it as one of accumulation,” inasmuch as my institution, Athabasca U, understands online, distance education most emphatically as a process of learning, and pursues it according to a progressive, public interest mandate. This mandate is shared by several other distance-education or “open” universities, though I do recognize too that there are other distance-education schools that all too aptly fit the neoliberal bill you describe. The issue here is just one of a generalization maybe made somewhat too broadly.

  •  by Craig Butosi

    Hi Mark,

    Thank you for your important response. I am always pleased to get the discussion rolling. I would like to offer some additional thoughts with your comments in mind, with absolutely no intent to offend:

    To the extent that educational institutions use online, distance education as a supplement to traditional, classroom education, I would cautiously agree with you that approaching education as a process of learning is preserved. Indeed, that instructors, professors, and TAs who participate in Coursera’s course creation in addition to their regular duties at their host university is evidence of their commitment to upholding or even enriching this process. For those who have access to university faculty, colleagues, and resources as well as online content, it is difficult to see this as a bad thing.

    However, for those who do not have the means to attend university, but only the means to access free online content, I wonder about the extent to which education as a process is upheld. I would like to say that although there is an honest effort from some institutions, including yours, to incorporate online education into traditional curricula, and although, in absolute terms, education as a process may be a motivating principle behind the supplementing of the analogue with the digital, I am less convinced that education as a process is preserved qualitatively online in the same way as it is in the analogue context. This is to say, the online context alone is insufficient if the goal is to educate. This should be kept in mind when reading what follows.

    Here I think we ought to be mindful of an important distinction made by David Noble, that between training and education. The former he sees as a premise and objective of distance education, and the latter as a premise and objective of traditional classroom education. The difference between the two, among other factors, is space, and, therefore, distance (between individuals). I would go so far as to say that the difference is one of integration (synchronous participation) and isolation (asynchronous alienation) – or, if one prefers, integration and mediated integration.

    Though I disagree with Noble’s treatment of education and training as bifurcated, oppositional, and discrete entities (instead they are dialectically related in the sense that education partly involves an element of training, and instruction cannot be but motivated by the process of education), I do agree with him that there is a noticeable difference between the two, especially when we consider the element of technology as a mediating factor. We could say that Coursera, as an online platform, emphasizes training over education, and that classroom learning emphasizes education over training. This is because the former cannot facilitate the integration and social proximity that the latter can. It is a question of one’s proximity to others and to the faculty and the resources of the university that is an important determining factor in one’s education. The latter is not solely about the accumulation of information. The absence of this close proximity to others in the digital context is at best problematic if we frame the issue in terms of education.

    Noble sees distance education not as education per se, but as training, something that does not necessarily lead to knowledge. It is instrumental in the sense that the information gained from such training is used as means to another’s end and not one’s own. Thus the process of training, then, is simply a matter of information transmission without concern towards improving upon or refining the self. Online content-delivery platforms, like Coursera, can easily transmit information, but can it engage in education? Is this all that education is, a matter of information exchange? I would contend that training is the objective in the online digital context, not education. It can only engage in training precisely because of its technological design: it is a system meant merely to facilitate information exchange, not face-to-face sociality, or what could be called high-fidelity communication centred on education. Online education necessarily entails a loss of information at the same information is gained.

    If education is merely a matter of information exchange, then we must question why universities still exist in the midst of such technology. That they do exist means that universities must offer something qualitatively different than online content-delivery platforms. Though I am unfamiliar with Athabasca’s mandate and online initiatives, I think it is reasonable to assert that the intentions of most if not all of the professoriate there are good, in that their ultimate mandate is to educate. As to whether online content-delivery platforms internalize education as a process and as an objective, however, is less convincing to me, especially when these technologies are developed by private interests, of whom often take a rather narrow view of what education is.

    The questions to ask are: what is online, distance education/training actually doing or committing to, and, what is classroom education/training doing or committing to? In terms of online, distance education, does technological mediation change, rather than preserve, those preconditions of the educational process essential to one’s learning?
    Another important question to ask is what do we lose when we reconfigure learning spaces based on a methodological individualism (education as necessarily individualistic) rather than on a relational-collective basis (education as necessarily social)?

    So what we come to then is, as I have implied, two different modes of a social practice, one arguably different in intent than the other: learning as accumulation (information transmission from sender to recipient in an isolated environment) and learning as a process (a continuously reflexive, dialectical, dialogical unravelling of understanding leading to knowledge and the improvement of one’s self in a high-fidelity social, communicational environment). In other words, online learning trains, but classroom learning educates. The difference here is between instrumental information and critical knowledge. Without the ability to integrate a group to optimize communication among them, treating education as a real-time, unraveling, cooperative, communicational process, is stunted. At best, isolating people from the very necessary social configuration of learning must change (or even devalue?) the outcome of such a process.

    Classroom learning centres on the collective, or to use Marx’s phrase, the social individual, which recognizes a fair balance between the individual’s needs within the context of a group. Distance education, while capable of facilitating a collective, is less successful in doing so precisely because of the technology-mediating (or distance creating) factor. People need others to learn; they also need continued access to them in a way most conducive to learning. Yes, online course content is available to anyone with the means to connect to the Internet. Yes, people can contribute to forum discussion online. But, is this configuration of learning qualitatively similar to high-fidelity, analogue learning? I am, at present, hesitant to answer in the affirmative.

    It is Noble’s view (assumption) that distance learning actually marginalizes education as a process and reconfigures it to something approaching education as a thing, perhaps interpellating the learner as either a critical citizen or savvy consumer, respectively. In some respects this is true. Coursera and its agents, for example, reify, because they have to, the meaning of education into three things: content, discrete courses as the formal expression of knowledge, and testing as the standard benchmark that determines knowledge gained or knowledge lost. All of which can easily be consumed. (I acknowledge that universities do this too, but this is well beyond the present discussion.) This is at best a highly reductive and scientistic interpretation of education that leaves little room for the kind of communicational dialogue that is essential to learning. Secondly, it is not surprising that all three of these internalizations are easily transmissible in the digital context. What we have with Coursera is a tendency for technology to determine learning, rather than the other way round.

    Distance is a determining factor in whether knowledge, and therefore the improvement of the self, can be attained. If education, as a process improving one’s knowledge and self, is predicated on close proximity to others, then it would seem that any educational-form that broadens the space between individuals does not work toward education, but something else, perhaps training. I would argue that training is a process less concerned with facilitating communication among people than is education. The former is a top-down process where one sends information to a recipient, who then retains, processes, and deploys that information when necessary. Success of the knowledge imparted is measured by the extent to which one retains the information transmitted. Education, on the other hand, is a ceaseless process of refinement that depends on close proximity to others. Education is not about absorption and memorization; it is about internalization and critical reflection, things that can happen only through dialogue with others. If we consider education without social proximity, then we commit to a reductive interpretation of what the former is. Why have professors when we have books? Why have books when we have the Internet? Why? Because neither the book nor the Internet can enter into dialogue with you. And it is this principle, I believe, that is lost (or at least significantly diminished) when we reduce education to an aggregate of content that can be transformed into programmable information exchange processes. It is much more than this.

    At the risk of preaching to the proverbial choir, the problem is not necessarily technology, but access to higher education. Coursera, as another iteration of a technological panacea that promises to circumvent the barriers to higher education, yet promises to users the same qualitative experience, risks mystifying the fact that the problem is a capitalist economy (not to mention complacent administrators) that adheres to a problematic neoliberal doctrine, which deliberately creates barriers in the form of prices to goods and services (including education), so that only those with the capital and means to attend university can go, rather than everyone, by virtue of their being a self-aware, inquisitive subject.

  •  by Sean

    Mr. Butosi,

    I’ m not sure if you are exploring different angles or if you actually believe what you are expressing here! I wonder if youv’e been part of a university system before. I do not mean to sound offensive, but your position seems so absurd that I can only assume a massive amount of speculation and lack of inquiry on your part. Your training/education distinction is meretricious, at best- so are your shallow ‘what if’ terms of agreement smearing. Perhaps, you should attempt to learn a new subject through the coursera medium and rethink your position,

    I, on the other hand- a new college student- appreciate the Coursera classes infinitely more than any face-to-face teacher I’ve arbitrarily encountered. Now I get to choose from masters or creators of their field. If that doesn’t make sense- then let me tell you about me “higher” education experience so far.

    First, my burn out high school biology teacher constantly dropping ‘life is a beautiful garden and the more you know the more enjoyment you get out of it’ analogies. My introductory psych teacher trying to convince the class that people can levitate with their minds while being sure to superficially target all learning styles during his lectures because he hasn’t read the research and doesn’t know any better (“OK, everyone hold hands- we are going to make a neuron!”). My first philosophy teacher, unable to travel past the archaic philosophy of mind arguments she was encouraging us to learn in groups- as if our tenancies toward naive-dualism would somehow be overcome in group discussion.

    What do these intellectual weaklings have to offer us face-to-face that we can’t get for free on line from people that lead their field? Coursera is an amazing way to bring virtuoso level teaching to anyone willing to put in the time.

    Please, rethink your position. I will think of you the next time I have a discussion with a college graduate that is expressing their disregard for science because they “just don’t believe in it”


  •  by Mandy Wintink

    I’m surprised that people are taking issue with your points Craig. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree, I think the point is that this serge of coursera (and the like) is something that we should approach cautiously. Is coursera interested in free education for all or is it capitalizing on a business opportunity? If we look at the history of Coursera we can see a lineage that stems back to Sebastian Thrun, who is/was a former VP of Google and faculty at Standford who started Udacity at Standford. Businessman or Academic?

    I liked what you wrote because it provoked thought. And I’m currently thinking about “what is education” and “what is the role of the university”. These are deep, intriguing questions that require some immediate attention because post-secondary education institutes may need to “re-brand” or “de-brand” themselves depending on which route they are to take!

  •  by James Rolls

    I disagree with the analysis completely. Here’s why:
    1/ Users (like me) do not have to use coursera (or EdX, for that matter). We opt to. That free choice invalidates most of the argument. If I don’t like the terms, I can go elsewhere. More freedom is always better than less freedom
    2/ It is reasonable to expect Coursera to try and make money. Facebook does, and I use it. Google does, and I use gmail. The model of Freemium (some services for free, with others for pay) or ad-support is what pays for the internet as we know it. Could UoT have built a site as good as coursera, advertised it as well, and got other Universities to join? I doubt it. How do I know? well, they -didn’t-.
    3/ Universities are already profit-driven. So are professors. Here’s a few pointers: (1) better paying universities somehow get to retain better professors. Seems like professors are profit-motivated. (2) many researchers/professors would rather do research only; yet they teach because that is a job requirement. Here, again, is proof of their adherence to that famed ‘profit motive’. In general, Universities have inherent inefficiencies, which public enterprise does not (and likely, vice versa). Attacking coursera because they do not help your establishment is… very establishment.

    Me — a coursera user, an EdX user, and a future user of any reputable and free education provider


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