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Mao and MOOCs

EdX must be clearer on its conflict of interest rules

Recent controversy has erupted over a class on the online learning platform edX, co-founded by Harvard and MIT in 2012 with the mission of increasing worldwide access to courses at universities around the world. Some Harvard professors have alleged that the course “Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought,” offered by Tsinghua University, represents a particularly biased perspective on history, one that is influenced greatly by the Chinese Communist Party’s official historical account of Mao’s life. Indeed, this course, taught by an associate professor of Tsinghua’s School of Marxism, does raise important questions about the future of online learning. As edX attempts to increase access to high quality education, it must expend increasing efforts to ensure the quality of its courses.

Our overall position on edX remains unchanged: It is exciting that Harvard is trying to broaden access to higher education. EdX as an organization provides classes from Ivy League and comparable institutions to people who would ordinarily not be able to experience them. It democratizes education and helps open Harvard’s vast knowledge base to anyone with an Internet connection. Still more commendable is edX’s collaborative nature—more than eighty-five top universities and other partner institutions from numerous different countries contribute courses, ensuring that students can benefit from a global perspective and reach.

As edX expands, however, it cannot focus solely on improving accessibility; the platform must continue to maintain a high standard in the courses that it accepts. Making courses accessible does no good if they are not also well designed and well taught. These are not only administrative and pedagogical questions but also ones of objectivity. Questions of objectivity are not easy to answer; after all, every history course displays some bias, takes some angle in its portrayal of past events. EdX should certainly not be in the business of censoring content, but it does need to establish clearer rules on conflict of interest.

In the case of “Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought,” we have a course that aims to represent a recounting of modern Chinese history taught by an institution controlled in part by the primary actor in that historical story. It explicitly seeks to explain Mao Zedong’s political philosophy—though that is an important historical and political subject, it would be better covered by an institution not so closely affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps unsurprisingly, other experts in the subject matter have flagged the course as lacking objectivity.

Of course, this is not a call to exclude all courses taught by Tsinghua University from edX. Tsinghua is undoubtedly not only one of China’s top educational institutions, but also a growing global university in the world’s largest country. It is responsible for real and serious scholarship in dozens of fields, and the fact that it is in a nominally communist country certainly should not mean its automatic exclusion from edX.

This situation is unique because of the deep institutional ties between the university and the subject matter as well as the course’s billing as a purportedly objective historical account. Going forward, edX must be sure to think critically about how it communicates its goals and standards to its university partners. Let us not forget that widely available high quality equation requires both availability and quality.

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