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?