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Editor's Note

Getting it Right, Now

University Business, March 2013
Tim Goral

Earlier this year work began on a document that, at the very least, formalizes expectations and minimum standards for schools and students venturing into online learning. With the growth of MOOCs and distance learning, we are entering a time when these alternate forms of learning will supplement and in some cases supplant traditional education models. Universities recognize that they need to find ways to provide cost-effective, quality education to an expanding base, even as their own funding gets slashed. Efforts such as Coursera, edX, UniversityNow, and others represent one approach that may radically change how learning takes place around the world. It’s an exciting time, and these are largely uncharted waters. That’s why the document, “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age,” is so important.

MOOCs and their like have the potential for paradigm-shifting greatness. But they also have the potential to go horribly wrong. As the preamble to the Bill explains:

“We believe that online courses can create ‘meaningful’ as well as ‘massive’ learning opportunities. We also know that some have grasped onto online education not for the public good but for profits and, sometimes, for unreasonable profit at the public expense and even as an alternative, in some cases, to public education as an invaluable resource. We need to be both hopeful in exploring the possibilities and cautious in considering the potential problems.”
It’s a wide-ranging document, but among the rights and principles the still-evolving Bill includes are:


“Learners have a right to know how data collected about their participation in the online system will be used by the organization and made available to others.”

Financial transparency

“Students have a right to know how their participation supports the financial health of the online system in which they are participating. They have a right to fairness, honesty, and transparent financial accounting. This is also true of courses that are ‘free.’ The provider should offer clear explanations of the financial implications of students’ choices.”

Formative assessment

Students should have the opportunity to revise and relearn until they achieve the level of mastery they desire in a subject or a skill. Online learning programs should strive to transform assessment into a rich, learner-oriented feedback system where students are constantly receiving information aimed at guiding their learning paths.

There are many more points than can be covered here, and readers owe it to themselves to examine the document. To their credit, the authors also provide a link to an editable Google Drive version, making it open for comment and input from both educators and students.

The bottom line is that we have a powerful tool at our disposal that can lead to great things. Everyone has a stake in this. Let’s figure out how best to use it now, before it morphs into a morass of confusion, hidden costs, and inefficiencies that don’t benefit anyone. Let’s get it right the first time.