Will Big Data be the Darkside of MOOCs?

Now that the whole idea of Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) has gone mainstream, many people are waxing enthusiastic about the opportunities associated with all of this free on-line  educational content.  But according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a new twist to the MOOC phenomenon:  the providers are looking to make money by selling information about enrollees to potential employers:

Here’s how it works: A participating employer is given a list of students who meet its requirements, usually the best-performing students in a certain geographic area. If the company is interested in one of those students, then Coursera [Andrew Ng’s MOOC platform] sends an e-mail to the student asking whether he or she would be interested in being introduced to that company. The company pays a flat fee to Coursera for each introduction, and the college offering the course gets a percentage of that revenue, typically between 6 and 15 percent.

The providers insist this is all on the up and up.  Students can opt out of the job matching service, as can any of the universities that are partnering with Coursera.  But what might be a little disturbing is that the providers are offering employers more than simple transcripts:

Both Coursera and Udacity show employers more than just student grades. They also highlight students who frequently help others in discussion forums.

[Stanford engineering professor Sebastian Thurin] of Udacity, said those “softer skills” are often more useful to employers than raw academic performance.

“Problems are never solved in isolation in the real world,” he said. He said that Udacity might share with an employer someone who has helped 90 to 100 people in discussion forums. “That specific skill has been a better predictor of placement success than academic performance,” he added.

This could be very useful for job-seekers.  Or it could put them in the position of having to make sure all aspects of their on-line experience (including interaction with other students) is acceptable to prospective employers.  Hmmmm. . . .

You can read the Chronicle story here.

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