Landing : Athabascau University

Butosi, Craig. "Coursera, or Socrates was not a Content Provider" (Academic Matters)

Western U grad student Craig Butosi closely reads Coursera's fine print and finds a neoliberal wolf hiding in OER sheeps' wool.

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”. [...] 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. [...] 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.


  • Thanks for sharing this! The Coursera clause about pornography is especially worrying -- it would be very hard to offer feminist or queer education without eventually needing to discuss sexual representation. And of course, that cuts off particular kinds of political participation in the educational space in the process -- ones that have traditionally made visible and critiqued the boundaries between public and private which, among other things, allow corporations to operate the way they do. There is a vested economic interest in maintaining conservative social values, or supposedly "family friendly" environments, beyond just making sure the sexually squeamish will still buy what you're selling.

    But then again -- Coursera explicitly bans "partisan" politics. I can't imagine that is aimed at anything besides the student movement. So it's not like it's a secret that privatization is anti-democratic. I guess that could become a marketing problem: how to further turn the university and its products into private goods, when anti-privatization activists have proved themselves such savvy users of the "quasi-public sphere" created in an environment like Coursera?

    I cringe every time I read something like "Coursera, and indeed online, distance education generally, ceases to understand education as a process of learning and interprets it as one of accumulation." Being at AU, of course I know there is a difference between distance education and private universities, even if they often overlap. But there is a whiff of privatization to plenty of what I see happening at AU -- ideas for call centre teaching, the branding project, even the attitudes expressed about censorship recently. (At least AU's acceptance of the university as a brand doesn't objectify students in service of corporate employers as repulsively as some other institutions' ad campaigns.)

    I'm curious about how this would go down at AU: the university has been very openly critical of copyright deals that turn public wealth into privately paid-for commodities. And the copyright-related clauses in Coursera's ToS seem to be at odds with AU's efforts to expand the creative commons (unless I am misunderstanding what AU is doing about copyright, which is possible). But would the instituion sign with Coursera or similar, as U of T did, in the name of branding? Or to support OERs? I'm really curious to know how these debates are being taken up within AU. 

    sarah beth August 27, 2012 - 12:16pm

  • I see neither a place for Coursera at AU, nor its welcome by faculty, particularly with Rory McGreal as UNESCO OER chair. I like to think (and I hope I'm right in doing so, and that others will back me up) that we're as dedicated to genuine and accessible OER, not simulated and expensive OER, as we are to balanced and responsible copyright. Coursera seems more like a product pitched to traditional universities for prefabricating ornamental, "brand"-oriented, non-accredited pseudo-curriculum that can get them placed in iTunes U, than a product that would hold any interest for an institution that has been building accredited and transferable curriculum for decades.

    Mark A. McCutcheon August 28, 2012 - 12:26pm

These comments are moderated. Your comment will not be visible unless accepted by the content owner.

Only simple HTML formatting is allowed and any hyperlinks will be stripped away. If you need to include a URL then please simply type it so that users can copy and paste it if needed.