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MOOCs, Trust, and the Signature Track

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On Sunday I received an email from Coursera letting me know that the Signature Track was now available for Cathy Davidson’s MOOC, “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.” I felt myself tense up a little.

The Signature Track, for those who aren’t familiar with it, uses multiple forms of authentication (government-issued photo ID, webcam, credit card) to verify that people taking a course are who they say they are. The signature component of the verification is a biometric technique. Your unique typing pattern, like how many milliseconds you push down on the “e” key, is recorded, and you type in a signature phrase to verify your identity. The service was announced in January 2013 in a blog post, but unlike much of the other stuff happening around MOOCs at the time, it didn’t get that much press.

When The Chronicle published the contract between the University of Michigan and Coursera in July 2012, I became very interested in the topic of MOOCs.

Two parts of the contract made me uneasy:

WHEREAS, Company has developed a proprietary platform to host certain learning content that will be made available to end users online via the Internet;

“Platform” means Company’s proprietary software platform and algorithms used to host, transmit and make Content available via the Internet and to provide related services and functionalities, including automatic grading or facilitating peer-to-peer interactive activities.

For all the rhetoric centered on students and education, as evidenced by the Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller’s TED Talk that came out the next month, the company described itself as a platform for hosting (learning content) and proprietary algorithm. Coursera, much like Facebook, Twitter, and other huge social-networking sites, imagined itself as a big data company.

That tension between the legal documents and the public rhetoric became the crux of my summer project, “Students as End Users in the MOOC Ecology,” which I completed at Microsoft Research New England with the Social Media Collective.

So what does the Signature Track offer? To have verified skills has potential impact not just for end users, but also for those enterprises that might need knowledge workers, or might need to trim their work forces. In the wider world, even outside of MOOCs, big data is big business. We interact in a world that is constantly recording user information associated with geographic location, device type, and various demographics. MOOCs are a creation of that world.

MOOC companies using free and low-cost access to exclusive educational content as catalysts toward accessibility complicates our ability to think of them as commercial or for-profit entities.⁠ The trust we place in MOOCs arises not because monetary funds are being exchanged for a service; rather, the trust is formed by the associations with big named professors or universities.

One of the most useful ways to understand how those companies trade in trust is to compare them to other content-delivery platforms, mentioned above, that are free to use in exchange for various amounts and types of personal data. The biggest difference between MOOCs and those social-networking sites is that MOOCs are not openly trading in social connections for the purpose of handing over users to advertising partners. Rather, MOOCs are trading in something that has already been institutionalized socially as extremely valuable: education from reputable institutions and professors.

More than reputable, the founding institutions that the three companies are strongly aligning themselves with—Harvard, MIT, and Stanford—are considered elite on a global scale, both inside and outside the academy. People want to give personally identifiable information to those types of institutions if it means they can get closer to the social capital they provide their students. This becomes sticky when we realize that most people using MOOCs are not students of those institutions. We have not yet determined what the value of a MOOC is out in the world.

What I have observed, though, first from initial research and now from seeing it in action in #FutureEd, is that for all the concerns I or others might have about potentially larger consequences of consenting to the level of verification and tracking—for example, making typing-pattern recognition a standard identifier—MOOCs offer something many people would not be able to get if they did not have access to those platforms.

The Signature Track was added to #FutureEd at the request of students. Those enrolled in the course, not Coursera, said that there was a benefit to having that option. I find myself being sucked in a little bit to the grand narrative of trust. If it is helping people, it can’t be all bad, can it? At the same time, as easy as it can help someone, it might hurt another. Not necessarily the Signature Track, but the technology it is developing.

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