Coursera found itself in the middle of a Terms of Service-related firestorm last week when The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the startup had recently changed its TOS to prevent Minnesota citizens from participating in its online courses.
Notice for Minnesota Users Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.
The story was picked up by Slate and by other publications, and after the story went viral, Larry Pogemiller, Director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, quickly clarified that "Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free. No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera."
Except it’s not obvious at all — not simply because of some 20-year-old piece of legislation that may or may not pertain to MOOCs, but because these sorts of stipulations appeared in a Terms of Service agreement which nobody reads.
“‘I have read and agree to the Terms’” is the biggest lie on the web,” insists a new project Terms of Service; Didn’t Read. “We aim to fix that.”
A play on the Internet lingo “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read), the site reviews the Terms of Service agreements for major websites and applications. TOS;DR then rates the terms from good to bad, A to F, based on things like data portability, anonymity, cookies, data ownership, copyright, censorship, and transparency about law enforcement requests.
The project has only been underway for a few months, and it recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign. That means that most of the entries, along with the list of applications and sites it plans to review, are incomplete. But the potential and the importance of the project are significant.
They’re particularly significant for education, I’d argue, where we have many sites built around user-generated content and personal (learner) data, often with unclear plans for monetization.
And so I’d add to the long list of sites that Terms of Service; Didn’t Read is already planning to review, a guide to the terms for:
Teachers Pay Teachers
Google (specifically Apps for Education)
Microsoft 360 (formerly [email protected])
What else should we add to the list?
And what should we be on the lookout for in the TOS for educational apps and websites? Specifically, how do we make sure that learners and not just schools are protected here?
For more information, you can join the working group and access the source code and issues on GitHub.