Scholars, Tech Insiders Tout Digital ‘Bill of Rights’ for Students

By Sean Cavanagh — January 29, 2013 2 min read
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A group of academic scholars, and assorted education technology researchers and insiders are touting a digital “Bill of Rights” outlining what they see as the protections and privileges that should be afforded students in the online world.

The signatories of the document include some well-known names in education technology, including Sebastian Thrun, chief executive officer of Udacity, who has a major role in the development of “massively open online courses,” or MOOCs.

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

One of the central principles identified by the authors is the right to access online learning in affordable and convenient ways, in a variety of formats. The document also identifies a right to privacy among those who participate in online systems, a major concern among parents and teachers. Students should have the right to know “how data collected about their participation in [an] online systems will be used by the organization and made available to others,” the document says.

Other tenets include the right to know how participating in an online system benefits that organization financially—even if the courses offered are free to students. In addition, students should have the right to “create and own intellectual property and data” tied to their participation in online courses, and a right to “pedagogical transparency,” meaning some certainty about the outcomes or education credentials they can obtain through taking part.

Another principle would seem to have intriguing implications for the world of K-12. Students have “the right to be teachers,” with the ability to shape learning, create and refine learning materials, and form virtual and real-world networks, the authors say.

“In an online environment, teachers no longer need to be sole authority figures,” the document says, “but instead should share responsiblity with learners at every turn.”

While the principles were written by authors whose experiences are mostly in higher education, many of the “rights” described are relevant to students in the K-12 world, said Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, and a participant in the drafting of the digital Bill of Rights. The principles grew out of a series of discussions in December among signers of the document about a range of topics, including the overall evolution of online content and MOOCs, and ideas were exchanged over the next month, with editing of the document taking place in Google doc.

Perhaps appropriately, given their message, the authors have posted a “hackable” document, so that suggestions from tech experts, teachers, and students can be incorporated, said Davidson, who is also the co-diretor of the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge. (I’ve included a snippet of the edited, working document, above.)

“Our main goal was to begin a conversation that we were not hearing,” Davidson told Education Week in an e-mail. “We are excited that many others are taking this up, some in violent disagreement, [with] some editing, some adding.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.