Monthly Archives: January 2013

A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age

Early this morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education broke the story of our “MOOC summit,” as we affectionately called it.  I am  proud to have been part of such a distinguished, smart, passionate group of education experts who want to pay attention to the most pressing issues of learning in the digital age.  We endorse students’ and learners’ rights wholeheartedly.  Please see our invitation and a link to participate in a public dialogue at the end of this document. 



Work on this Bill of Rights & Principles began in Palo Alto, California, on December 14, 2012. We convened a group of people passionate about learning, about serving today’s students, and about using every tool we could imagine to respond better to the needs of students in a global, interactive, digitally connected world.

The Internet has made it possible for anyone on the planet to be a student, a teacher, and a creative collaborator at virtually no cost.  Novel technologies that can catalyze learning are bubbling up in less time than it takes to read this sentence.  Some have emerged from universities, some from the private sector, some from individuals and digital communities.  In the past year, Massive Online Open Courseware, or MOOCs, have become the darling of the moment–lauded by the media, embraced by millions–so new, so promising in possibility, and yet so ripe for exploitation.

We believe that online learning represents a powerful and potentially awe-inspiring opportunity to make new forms of learning available to all students worldwide, whether young or old, learning for credit, self-improvement, employment, or just pleasure.  We believe that online courses can create “meaningful” as well as “massive” learning opportunities.

We are aware of how much we don’t know: that we have yet to explore the full pedagogical potential of learning online, of how it can change the ways we teach, the ways we learn, and the ways we connect.

And we worry that this moment is fragile, that history frequently and painfully repeats itself. Think of television in the 1950s or even correspondence courses in the 1920s. As we begin to experiment with how novel technologies might change learning and teaching, powerful forces threaten to neuter or constrain technology, propping up outdated educational practices rather than unfolding transformative ones.

All too often, during such wrenching transitions, the voice of the learner gets muffled.

For that reason, we feel compelled to articulate the opportunities for students in this brave electronic world, to assert their needs and–we dare say–rights.

We also recognize some broader hopes and aspirations for the best online learning. We include those principles as an integral addendum to the Bill of Rights below.

Our broad goal is to inspire an open, learner-centered dialogue around the rights, responsibilities, and possibilities for education in the globally-connected world of the present and beyond.

I.  Bill of Rights

We believe that our culture is increasingly one in which learning, unlearning and relearning are as fundamental to our survival and prosperity as breathing. To that end, we believe that all students have inalienable rights which transfer to new and emerging digital environments. They include:

The right to access
Everyone should have the right to learn: traditional students, non-traditional students, adults, children, and teachers, independent of age, gender, race, social status, sexual orientation, economic status, national origin, bodily ability, and environment anywhere and everywhere in the world. To ensure the right to access, learning should be affordable and available, offered in myriad formats, to students located in a specific place and students working remotely, adapting itself to people’s different lifestyles, mobility needs, and schedules.  Online learning has the potential to ensure that this right is a reality for a greater percentage of the world’s population than has ever been realizable before.

The right to privacy
Student privacy is an inalienable right regardless of whether learning takes place in a brick-and-mortar institution or online.  Students 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. The provider should offer clear explanations of the privacy implications of students’ choices.

The right to create public knowledge
Learners within a global, digital commons have the right to work, network, and contribute to knowledge in public; to share their ideas and their learning in visible and connected ways if they so choose.  Courses should encourage open participation and meaningful engagement with real audiences where possible, including peers and the broader public.

The right to own one’s personal data and intellectual property
Students also have the right to create and own intellectual property and data associated with their participation in online courses.  Online programs should encourage openness and sharing, while working to educate students about the various ways they can protect and license their data and creative work.  Any changes in terms of service should be clearly communicated by the provider, and they should never erode the original terms of privacy or the intellectual property rights to which the student agreed.

The right to 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.

The right to pedagogical transparency

Students have the right to understand the intended outcomes–educational, vocational, even philosophical–of an online program or initiative.  If a credential or badge or certification is promised by the provider, its authenticity, meaning, and intended or historical recognition by others (such as employers or academic institutions) should be clearly established and explained.

The right to quality and care
Students have the right to care, diligence, commitment, honesty and innovation.  They are not being sold a product–nor are they the product being sold.  They are not just consumers.  Education is also about trust.  Learning–not corporate profit–is the principal purpose of all education.

The right to have great teachers
All students need thoughtful teachers, facilitators, mentors and partners in learning, and learning environments that are attentive to their specific learning goals and needs.  While some of us favor peer learning communities, all of us recognize that, in formal educational settings, students should expect–indeed demand–that the people arranging, mentoring and facilitating their learning online be financially, intellectually and pedagogically valued and supported by institutions of higher learning and by society.  Teachers’ know-how and working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

The right to be teachers
In an online environment, teachers no longer need to be sole authority figures but instead should share responsibility with learners at almost every turn.  Students can participate and shape one another’s learning through peer interaction, new content, enhancement of learning materials and by forming virtual and real-world networks. Students have the right to engaged participation in the construction of their own learning. Students are makers, doers, thinkers, contributors, not just passive recipients of someone else’s lecture notes or methods.  They are critical contributors to their disciplines, fields, and to the larger enterprise of education.

II.  Principles

The following are principles to which the best online learning should aspire.  We believe the merit of specific courses, programs, or initiatives can be judged on the strength of their adherence to these principles and encourage students and professors to seek out and create digital learning environments that follow and embody them.

Global contribution
Online learning should originate from everywhere on the globe, not just from the U.S. and other technologically advantaged countries.  The best courses will be global in design and contribution, offering multiple and multinational perspectives.  They should maximize opportunities for students from different countries to collaborate with one another, to contribute local knowledge and histories and to learn one another’s methods, assumptions, values, knowledge and points of view.

The function of learning is to allow students to equip themselves to address the challenges and requirements of life and work. Online learning can serve as a vehicle for skills development, retraining, marketable expertise.  It can also support self-improvement, community engagement, intellectual challenge, or play.  All of these functions are valid. The best programs and initiatives should clearly state the potential contexts in which they offer value.

Students should have many options for online learning, not simply a digitized replication of the majors, minors, requirements, courses, schedules and institutional arrangements of conventional universities.  The best online learning programs will not simply mirror existing forms of university teaching but offer students a range of flexible learning opportunities that take advantage of new digital tools and pedagogies to widen these traditional horizons, thereby better addressing 21st-century learner interests, styles and lifelong learning needs.  Ideally, they will also suggest and support new forms of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary inquiry that are independent of old gatekeepers such as academic institutions or disciplines, certification agencies, time-to-degree measurements, etc.

Hybrid learning
Freed from time and place, online learning should nonetheless be connected back to multiple locations around the world and not tethered exclusively to the digital realm.  This can happen by building in apprenticeships, internships and real-world applications of online problem sets.  Problem sets might be rooted in real-world dilemmas or comparative historical and cultural perspectives.  (Examples might include: “Organizing Disaster Response and Relief for Hurricane Sandy” or “Women’s Rights, Rape, and Culture” or “Designing and Implementing Gun Control:  A Global Perspective.”)

Learning is emergent, a lifelong pursuit, not relegated to the brick walls of an institution or to a narrow window of time during life; it has no specific end point. The artificial divisions of work, play and education cease to be relevant in the 21st century.  Learning begins on a playground and continues perpetually in other playgrounds, individual and shared workspaces, communities and more.  Learning can be assessed but doesn’t aim itself exclusively toward assessment.

Both technical and pedagogical innovation should be hallmarks of the best learning environments.  A wide variety of pedagogical approaches, learning tools, methods and practices should support students’ diverse learning modes.  Online learning should be flexible, dynamic, and individualized rather than canned or standardized.  One size or approach does not fit all.

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 or initiatives should strive to transform assessment into a rich, learner-oriented feedback system where students are constantly receiving information aimed at guiding their learning paths.  In pedagogical terms, this means emphasizing individualized and timely (formative) rather than end-of-learning (summative) assessment.  Similarly, instructors should use such feedback to improve their teaching practices.  Assessment is only useful insofar as it helps to foster a culture of success and enjoyment in learning.

Experimentation should be an acknowledged affordance and benefit of online learning. Students should be able to try a course and drop it without incurring derogatory labels such as failure (for either the student or the institution offering the course).  Through open discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of programs, the industry should develop crowd-sourced evaluative guides to help learners choose the online learning that best fits their needs.

Courses should encourage interaction and collaboration between students wherever it enhances the learning experience.  Such programs should encourage student contributions of content, perspectives, methods, reflecting their own cultural and individual perspectives.  Online learning programs or initiatives have a responsibility to share those contributions in an atmosphere of integrity and respect.  Students have the right and responsibility to promote and participate in generous, kind, constructive communication within their learning environment.

Open online education should inspire the unexpected, experimentation, and questioning–in other words, encourage play. Play allows us to make new things familiar, to perfect new skills, to experiment with moves and crucially to embrace change–a key disposition for succeeding in the 21st century.  We must cultivate the imagination and the dispositions of questing, tinkering and connecting.  We must remember that the best learning, above all, imparts the gift of curiosity, the wonder of accomplishment, and the passion to know and learn even more.

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DATE:  January 25, 2013


John Seely Brown, University of Southern California and Deloitte Center for the Edge
Betsy Corcoran, Co-founder, CEO, EdSurge (
Cathy N. Davidson, Distinguished Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies, Co-Director PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, Duke University, and cofounder Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (
Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Stanford University; blogs about literature and digital pedagogy at
Todd Edebohls, CEO of careers and education service Inside Jobs (
Mark J. Gierl, Professor of Educational Psychology, Canada Research Chair in Educational Measurement, and Director, Centre for Research in Applied Measurement and Evaluation, University of Alberta, Canada
Sean Michael Morris, Educational Outreach for Hybrid Pedagogy ( and Part-time Faculty in the English and Digital Humanities Program at Marylhurst University in Portland, OR
(Jan) Philipp Schmidt, Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU, and MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow
Bonnie Stewart, Ph.D candidate and Sessional Lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada; blogs at
Jesse Stommel, Director of Hybrid Pedagogy ( and Director of English and Digital Humanities at Marylhurst University in Portland, OR
Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity (, Google Fellow and Research Professor in Computer Science, Stanford University
Audrey Watters, Writer, Hack Education (

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To join the discussion, visit one of the many platforms where this Bill of Rights and Principles is being published and blogged about (each of us, and each of the platforms, will likely create a different sort of engagement).  We invite further discussion, hacking, and forking of this document.  On Twitter, please use the hashtag #learnersrights when you share your versions and responses.  Finally, and most importantly, this document can’t be complete (can never be complete) without continuous and dynamic contributions and revising by students.  We invite students everywhere to read this beginning, to talk about it, to add to it.

Additional resources:

We have not included reading resources here but invite you to add the ones most meaningful to you in the public, crowd-sourced version of the Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age, at  Collective contribution is the principle we espouse in this document.  We look forward to your participation.



Filed under MOOC musings

Married to the MOOC (Part 1)

(Note:   This is the first, slightly amended part of  a  paper I gave in the “Literature and Digital Pedagogies” session at the MLA (Modern Language Association) conference in Boston in January 2013.  The abstracts and overall description of the session can be found here.  Further installments will be added soon.)

In the Fall of 2011, my husband Sebastian Thrun, then a professor of Computer Science at Stanford and a Google Fellow working on self-driving cars and Google Glass, decided to take his Artificial Intelligence class online.  Little did he know what sort of an avalanche he would kick loose, resulting in what the New York Times sensationally dubbed “The Year of the MOOC.” Sebastian sent a single email to a professional organization announcing that his colleague Peter Norvig and he would offer the AI class on the internet in parallel with Sebastian’s Stanford class, with the same materials, deadlines, and expectations but open to anyone, anywhere in the world, for free.  The virtual students were given the chance to  measure themselves against the Stanford students.  They would have to pass the same quizzes and exams.  They would receive not official credit, but a certificate of completion from Sebastian and Peter, two well-known experts in the field of AI.

Within just a few days, thousands of students signed up; the New York Times picked up the story and enrollment soared; within a few weeks, 160,000 students had signed up from all over the world: all ages, backgrounds, nationalities.

So all of a sudden, without much warning, I found myself married to the MOOC.

Sebastian and Peter recorded most of their lectures and quizzes at night in our basement, when our then four-year-old son was asleep upstairs.  The recording equipment included an ingenious low-tech set-up of an ordinary household camera mounted on a tower of wooden building blocks borrowed from our son’s play room.  But history was in the making: “AI class”  officially became the largest class ever taught up to that point, with students participating from almost every single country in the world.

Enter the frenzied press coverage of the past year.  It was hard to keep up with the headlines, interviews, stories, and op-eds.  There were weeks when Sebastian seemed to be interviewed almost simultaneously by WIRED, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the HuffPost, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and various bloggers.  Not a month seemed to go by without some national media announcement of a new venture capital investment or a new non-profit in higher education: MITx, Udacity (the company my husband co-founded with David Stavesn adn Mike Sokolsky), edX, Coursera, Udemy, Codecademy; the list goes on.  And of course, the original inspiration behind many of these—definitely behind Udacity—has been the success of Khan Academy in K-12 education, as summarized Sal Khan’s original TED talk (which has over 2 million hits on youtube by now).

All the media hype around MOOCs—the idea that they are a dangerous disruption to the higher education ideals in this country, that universities as we know them will be going down the drain, that the for-profit model sells out all true intellectual value–tends to drone out the really exciting, difficult, and important issues we should all be talking about.  These include students’ rights, equal access to higher education, new and smarter forms of digital pedagogy, global connectedness, the role of the humanities in all this, and also, of course, increasingly, academic labor issues, which are not to be underestimated.  As someone who has lived different career roles as graduate student, Assistant Professor, and Lecturer in the embattled Humanities (which come with their own darling doomsday scenarios), I am very supportive of faculty rights discussions, especially concerning adjunct labor.  But the students, our primary care and concern, the reason why we went into teaching in the first place, have yet to enter the conversations about MOOCs in full force, to speak themselves, to speak with us, to be heard, not be addressed as  mere numbers or recipient addenda to our conversations about money, scale, tactical problem-solving.

A quick word about MOOCs, since that word gets thrown around so much these days.  Udacity, Coursera, edX and so forth have dominated the talk about MOOCs this year, but most people still don’t know or acknowledge that MOOCs are actually not new.  The term was coined by Dave Cormier at University of Prince Edward Island in Canada in 2008, and the concept emerged out of the open educational resources movement and the connectivist movement.  George Siemens and Stephen Downes, also Canadians, first applied the term to a connectivist MOOC—or cMOOC (George Siemens’s coinage)- they taught in 2008; they based their work, in turn, on David Wiley’s work on openness and Alec Couros’ early open (2007-2010) courses at the University of Regina.  Bonnie Stewart, also of University of Prince Edward Island, has blogged eloquently about the mainstream media’s early erasure of that history and the main differences between the two pedagogical approaches, and she was gracious enough to share some of her insights with me in an email conversation.

To lay out the differences briefly, one might say that in cMOOCs, the network of participants largely generates the contents of the class or project in distributed fashion, that is on a common course platform as well as in a myriad of other digital venues, in real time, together.  By comparison, the courses that run on Udacity, EdX, Coursera, Udemy, etc., and which are now commonly called xMOOCs by people who know and care about this history, are comparatively closer to the traditional teacher-centric model of teaching, where predetermined content gets delivered through a specifically developed platform, or more often a taping of the physical classroom or prof’s office, and you see and hear talking heads (one or more).  Commonly now, you may also see a hand writing or drawing on a tablet with accompanying voiceover, as if a personal tutor is sitting next to you, explaining something one on one.  In the better xMOOCs, the lectures are short and stopped often for interactive quizzes, where you are prompted to practice and demonstrate what you have learned before the lecture moves on.  Lectures are rewindable and usually, you can try more than once and until you get it right: teaching to mastery, instead of instantly penalizing for errors and failure.

Most xMOOCs to date remain STEM-oriented, and specific skills or problem-solving strategies and knowledge are taught and assessed for correctness.  This approach is clearly a problem for the humanities though: in our kind of teaching, there are usually no “correct” answers; most often we aim to open up more questions than definitively answering one. There are prearranged quizzes and exams with real deadlines; this is often where a lot of participants fall off the bandwagon (attrition is a problem—under 10% of most sign-ups currently actually finish a course).  For a sense of community, there is some form of monitored and curated peer interaction, usually in discussion fora in which TAs and teachers are active together with participants answering questions. Sometimes, there are real-world study groups or meet-ups, often organized by the students themselves. Most recently, Udacity has also started taking their cameras into the real world and sometimes other countries, to illustrate and motivate mathematical, statistical, or other science problems in the real world, with real-world applications and everyday materials—and sometimes these have even included our son’s Legos, which mysteriously went missing one morning …

But as this illustrates and most of you probably know, MOOCs are still the domain of science and technology, with very few forays into the humanities, such as Al Filreis’s enjoyable Modern Poetry MOOC out of UPenn through Coursera, which I also took (but did not finish).

So back to our dinner table at home.  There are some of immediately obvious critiques and the pitfalls with this pedagogy from the literary and cultural humanities perspective:  the current MOOC tools and methods are still rather primitive and at least in the humanities, just don’t cut it yet. Assessment is a big obstacle right now: not only do multiple choice quizzes and 300-word uncurated peer-graded essays with primitive rubrics not cut it, they also don’t even capture what is possible and desirable to do digitally in the humanities, and they do not assess the interactive and multimedia work that goes on in blogs, on social media, in tools like Omeka or collaborative presentations or crowd-sourced annotated bibliographies, for instance.  And the MOOC technology doesn’t give us many tools to do what we do best, discuss and crowdsource interpretations of texts—and maybe those can’t even be scaled.  But much more importantly, for me, current MOOCs with their rigid structure and format do not allow traditional humanists to play with innovative forms of reading and writing digitally—both receptively and productively—that would really allow us to exploit the uniqueness of the digital media environment.  The challenges not just for digital technology, but also for digital pedagogy, are huge and daunting, and just starting to be explored.

All this MOOC talk got me, a traditionally trained humanities teacher with a PhD in English and a passion for teaching literature and feminist and queer studies seminars, very excited and intrigued.

So what could this mean for someone like me—not someone trained in the Digital Humanities or even very versed in sophisticated online tools?   This past Fall, I set myself a challenge: I was going to figure out, in some small way, how digital pedagogy could work in the messy, real world, in a regular face-to-face humanities seminar, and I wasn’t going to be daunted or discouraged by the mega-MOOC or the fact that I’ve never taken a DH class in my life.  If the humanities are going to have a voice in this tidal wave of transformation, we better figure out some better, smarter ways to harness technology to our own ends—not someone else’s, and to get creative and bold, and hands on.  Of course, the Digital Humanities as a field is over 20 years old at this point and has developed a whole array of important areas and methods of study and teaching, but not too many have really infiltrated the typical seminar format and the way most literature classes are taught.  But we need to think through creative opportunities and challenges of digital pedagogies for traditional literature and language teaching as well, which is still the bulk of English and language departments’ courses, to explore the benefits and challenges of a hybrid format (a regular classroom with some online components), and perhaps then also increasingly in MOOCs.

So this past Fall at Stanford, I decided to take my seminar in Comparative Literature and French, “Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents,” partially online, to learn by doing.  I am not a techie kind of person by any means, and really new to the whole digital pedagogy idea.  I didn’t even know how to use WordPress before I started (and now here I am blogging on it like a pro).  I wanted to practically try out, experience on the ground and step by step, not just plan and speculate, how an ordinary, humanities teacher  can use digital components and social media (Twitter, Facebook, maybe Tumblr and Storify, nothing overly complex) to teach regular humanities students right here, right now.  The technology in this course needs to support and enhance the contents, not the other way around: no gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake.

What I wanted to do with my Stanford class was to really think about new ways of doing things digitally that would enhance what we already do well and value highly as our three pillars: close reading, critical thinking, critical writing.  I could not solve all three at once, so I started with the first, close reading, and just told myself I wanted to explore digital tools and design exercises with students that would harness the ways we can read, write, think, show and tell differently online: with sound and images, collaboratively or individually, in a playful creative or a scholarly analytical style, with variety, with simple tools, and open to new things.  I talked about my experiences and hopes at the beginning of that class in a recorded workshop at Duke University recently, kindly hosted by Professors Cathy Davidson and David Bell, the wonderful folks of HASTAC, the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, and the John Hope Franklin Center for the Humanities at Duke University.

You can look at our class blog at your own leisure–there’s a lot of material there, and it’s a shared space to which both the students and I have contributed, and I also have some of meta teaching reflections on this blog, right here.  In my next post (or one of my next posts), I will take you through three examples of group close reading exercises I did with that class, that represent the kind of work and play I’d love to do more of.

And another class I’m teaching right now, Introduction to Comparative Queer Literary Studies, also at Stanford and flying solo without a whole tech team or a VC-funded company behind me, is now live online as well and will grow exponentially in the next few weeks.  In that particular class–because of the subject matter and particular potential vulnerabilities of the students taking it (LGBTQ and straight)–I am facing a whole other set of challenges around ensuring students’ privacy and personal comfort zones while enabling our collective contribution to public knowledge about queer literature and theory: an important balancing act between utmost pedagogical care and the pitfalls of doing public intellectual (and for some, perhaps emotional) work.  I believe ours may be the first LGBTQ-themed college or university class that consciously reaches out to the public.  It is important work, and it’s a privilege and an honor to do it.  I’ll try to do a good job.  Students, too, I know.

I will be blogging more about the ongoing challenges and excitements of taking the traditional humanities online and getting ourselves involved in the conversations around MOOCs.  Stay tuned.

All of this is a work in progress, just like any good marriage.

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Filed under MOOC musings