Bioethics Blogs

Getting ahead of the wave: MOOC’s and human subjects research

by Rebecca D. Armstrong, DVM, PhD, director of research subject protection, at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of PRIM&R’s Education Committee

In early June, I was invited to attend a multiday convention, The Asilomar Convention for Learning Research in Higher Education, co-hosted by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to share my IRB expertise. The event, which was largely supported by the National Science Foundation, tackled the issue of massive open online courses (MOOCs), educational research, and, by extension, human subjects research and IRB review. Knowing next to nothing about MOOCs, what I learned was fascinating.

There is now software that can track an online learner’s every move throughout the learning process, and researchers are hungry to analyze the “big data” that is generated by the more than 50,000 course enrollees from around the world, with the goal of improving learning. Educational researchers are getting data from commercial companies that host MOOCs, such as Cousera and edX, or from their own in-house courses that utilize similar platforms. Typically, at the beginning of a course, enrollees accept (i.e., click on) a basic user agreement, but they may not realize that included in that agreement is language that allows for the use of their data in a research field referred to as learning analytics. This lack of awareness is somewhat akin to the recent Facebook study controversy.

MOOCs, and the abundance of data that results from these courses, are likely to have a significant impact on research in the learning sciences.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.