Friday, November 16, 2012

Web availability at ICPSR - October 2012

October was a very good month for system uptime - over 99.9% availability:

Click chart to enlarge
That's good news after a much rougher September.  So far things look good this month, although a number of very short-lived outages have already pushed us below 99.9% for the month.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A commentary on MOOCs from Clay Shirky

Some of my colleagues - past and present - are attending classes in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  I've been following their stories and also columnists who have been talking about MOOCs and education.  It is a very interesting time.

Clay Shirky has a long post (Napster, Udacity, and the Academy) about MOOCs that is well worth reading.  Some highlights:
The recording industry concluded this new audio format would be no threat, because quality mattered most. Who would listen to an MP3 when they could buy a better-sounding CD at the record store? Then Napster launched, and quickly became the fastest-growing piece of software in history. The industry sued Napster and won, and it collapsed even more suddenly than it had arisen.

If Napster had only been about free access, control of legal distribution of music would then have returned the record labels. That’s not what happened. Instead, Pandora happened. happened. Spotify happened. ITunes happened. Amazon began selling songs in the hated MP3 format.
It’s been interesting watching this unfold in music, books, newspapers, TV, but nothing has ever been as interesting to me as watching it happen in my own backyard. Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.

We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Nick Carr, MOOCs, and ethics

In his post The ethics of MOOC research, Nick Carr describes a note he received from a colleague in academia who comments on the research agenda of Massive Open Online Courses:
The MOOCs’ research agenda seems entirely wholesome. But it does raise some tricky ethical issues, as a correspondent from academia pointed out to me after my article appeared. “At most institutions,” he wrote, the kind of behavioral research the MOOCs are doing “would qualify as research on human subjects, and it would have to be approved and monitored by an institutional review board, yet I have heard nothing about that being the case with this new adventure in technology.” Universities are, for good reason, very careful about regulating, approving, and monitoring biological and behavioral research involving human subjects. In addition to the general ethical issues raised by such studies, there are strict federal regulations governing them. I am no expert on this subject, but my quick reading of some of the federal regulations suggests that certain kinds of purely pedagogical research are exempt from the government rules, and it may well be that the bulk of the MOOC research falls into that category.
Given the intense energy ICPSR has been putting its systems for protecting confidential research data and facilitating requests for using such data, I found this very interesting.

I see parallels here with collecting and using personal information.  If one conducts a survey and asks personal questions to well-consented adults, the results might one day become an interesting, restricted-use dataset.  But if the same information is harvested from freely and openly blogs, tweets, and wall posts, would it also become restricted-use data?