Data collected through Coursera profile – what are the ethical issues at stake?

The data you can enter through the Coursera “profile”, while it is not compulsory, promises potential career opportunities, new connections and course recommendations. This may be of less interest to those who have an existing level of education, a job and existing connections; however, if you are visiting Coursera with the hope of increased career opportunities, it may be significant (although it is difficult to tell without further analysis or Coursera data).

A quick check of the Coursera privacy policy reveals that ‘general course data’ and site ‘activity’ may be shared with ‘Content Providers and other business partners’, including personally identifiable information, and ‘Content Providers and other business partners may share information about their products and services that may be of interest to you where they are legally entitled to do so’.

In addition to the site activity data (presumably course searches, enrolments and so on) collected by Coursera, the additional information you can provide to personalise your ‘learning experience’ and recommendations is fairly extensive, including work experience, education, career goals, location, age and gender:

Coursera profile Coursera profile

While it is possible through this page to limit the information to ‘only me’, ‘the Coursera community’ or ‘everyone on the web’, presumably the privacy policy will still allow Coursera staff, and associated ‘content providers’ or ‘business partners’ to access and analyse this data. The options presented (for which I selected ‘only me’ in all cases) give a slightly false and misleading sense of privacy, since the privacy policy outlines that it should say ‘only me, plus Coursera staff, Content Providers and business partners’ – that is, assuming I have understood the policy correctly, although presumably many will never read it at all.

There do not seem to be any options (easily visible on this page, at least) for hiding all your data from everyone else (including Coursera staff, ‘Content Providers’ and ‘business partners’), nor do there appear to be any options for customising who can view your site activity. For an educational site – where some may be following a promise of improved career opportunities, and where everyone is not beginning at the same ‘starting point’ – it, in my opinion, seems appropriate to be able to hide all data from everyone.

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