Blog Post

What Do You Think About the Coursera Signature Track? I'm Not Sure #FutureEd

NB:  Below you will find the Forum Topic I posted this morning to my Coursera MOOC on "The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education"     in the wake of a notice about the Signature track going to all the enrolled MOOC students (close to 16,000 now, with over 7000 actually participating in some way last week).  I figured no one is going to be better informed about this than the participants themselves. #FutureEd is committed to making these ideas part of an international public forum.  I will never use the identity of a participant without their permission but their ideas are part of what we are doing by extending the "meta-MOOC" to become a "movement."


My Forum Post to the Coursera Participants:  "What Do You Think about the Coursera Signature Track?"

I originally said I would not offer Certificates or a Signature Track for this Coursera MOOC because there is so much hype and hysteria that I didn't want this course on The History and Future of Higher Education to contribute. I decided to do both for many reasons but chiefly (1) so many people--especially teachers--convinced me that this could actually make a material improvement in their lives, getting credit towards professional development, that I could not see the harm, especially since it is clear this course is not taking away the job of another professor teaching at a university offering such a course as a requirement; this is an add-on and a benefit and mostly lifelong learning or, for some, an unusual or even unique chance to have an alternative way of showing interest in one's profession; and (2) I hate giving in to knee-jerk hype and hysteria and did it so I could learn more.

 Now, however, I need to add a third reason:  (3) Why not ask those taking this MOOC what they think of this feature?   I have never encountered more sustained, smarter, more thoughtful discussion of MOOCs, of higher education, and of educational reform than in this MOOC.  I am humbled and inspired.   I'd love to hear what you think and make this a subject of an energetic Forum.  We can make a difference.  I believe that.  And I thank you for your contribution.



I understand the benefit people get from being able to be verified, but from the moment it was released the signature track has made me very uncomfortable. For those who don't know, I have a paper under review on some of the data stuff. I had a small section on the singature track that I will just C&P rather than rewriting

On January 9th2013, Coursera made a post to their blog introducing their new signature track courses. Signature track is a paid service that allows for End Users to verify their identity, receive a verified certificate and a sharable course record, all for a fee of $30-$100 per course. The signature track incorporates innovative authentication methods that include a government issued “photo ID, as well as your Signature Phrase, a biometric profile of your unique typing pattern” (Coursera Blog, January 9, 2013 The mobilization of biometrics to differentiate individuals in big data streams specifically so the information can be sold to third parties is not being discussed. Cloaking this in the aspirational desires of end users and the trustworthiness of associated institutions means that the practiced of over-verification of individual user data by MOOCs has not been widely questioned. 

So, yes, I uderstand the need now to have this as an option. I think it is wonderful that people are able to mobilize their participation into material and meaningful gains. But I am still wary of the lack of interrogation these companies receive when it comes to them being big data companies. Part of how they describe themselves is as an algorithm company. I'm wary of anything that needs that many points of authntication, especially when there are so many incentives in place for users to think it is a good idea to share that data. As someone said in comments earlier, they wouldn't have access to any educational resources right now, not even community college, if it weren't for the MOOCs.

So... consider me wary. The term I use to describe this is trading in trust. It is operating in a very strange space of the trust economy where it can capitalize off of our cultural belief of education as a public good. It blurs the lines of so many different industries and insitutions that it is hard to pinpoint it. But at the end of the day the most valuable thing they have is very detailed data on individual people and how they work/learn. Being able to track typing patterns seems very creepy saucy. And given how cookies work, there's no way to know when the tracking stops and ends. I know it isn't the end of the world if you have nothing to hide... but you never know if you do. And as so many people are worried, even in the course, about being able to participate anonymously, knowing that the ability to recognize patterns exists makes me wonder how anonymous can anonymous users really be? You can mask your IP, but not everyone has the tools required to block your typing pattern.


I can't wait for your article to be published, Jade.  I share your concern.  And share it every time I Google, Facebook, Tweet, pay for something with a credit card on a Square or online, use a mobile phone.  In fact, several of us are working right now on a a very large-scale project and whitepaper on trust.  It's not yet ready but will be soon.  We'll be announcing at the DML Conference in March, I believe, or at HASTAC in April in Peru.   It's my obsession these days.  


By the way, I learned one reason that there are so many great studies of racial health disparities in North Carolina is it is one of the only states that makes that data available.   Privacy? Or social activism (given the really fabulous policy work done on that data)?   And one reason there is so much Big Pharma as well as non-big pharma medical research done in Singapore is the goverment allows its citizens data, right down to the DNA, to be available for researchers.


Data.  Privacy.  Learning.  Research.  Activism.   Oy vey.


The comments focused on the biometrics required to authenticate participation bring up a great point about how these are stored and potential downstream uses. Similar big data fears surround emerging DNA services.

Perhaps we need to look at alternatives to biometrics. For example, local testing centers where exams can be taken in person (part of the cost that determines the fee). If enough MOOCs were doing this, local community colleges could support testing, for example, even internationally. 

The idea of getting a certificate, or a badge, or something that signals learning/skilling at the end of a course is amplified when these skills track into some sort of recognized skill repertoire that is valued by society and/or employeers. I'm not sure how a certificate for this particular MOOC would fit into a larger learning schema. That's one reason I'm not planning to use the signature track.

This feature highlights the need for more robust evaluation services. As MOOC content becomes more available, and future MOOCs mash-up modules from existing MOOCs to build new custom learning experiences, the real added value will not be in the content, but in the larger context of learning and in the ability to use evaluation to authenticate desired skills.


I signed up for the Signature Track, despite my reservations. I wanted to see what it would be like, so I just jumped in. I made screen shots of the steps that were involved in collecting my data (somehow, self-surveillance diverts attention from being surveilled). The experience is like crossing the international border at an American airport (but without the cute, tail wagging sniffer dogs). Throughout the process, I had the sneaking suspicion that I was hiding something, although I'm not sure what. 

We all like to think that we can see everyone and everything online. There's a certain thrill in using Google Street View, and even weather cams have a weird kind of attraction. We are happy to accept surveillance technologies if we believe that we are the one at the centre of the panopticon. It's OK if we are the guard, but not the prisoner; the teacher, but not the student. We try not to think about who (or what) is on the other side of the larger enclosure that surrounds the world that we can see. We amuse ourselves by snapping the occasional selfie when we catch our reflection in the shiny, concave, one-way mirror. 


That's the best metaphor so far of all the zillion exchanges on Coursera:  "The experience is like crossing the international border at an American airport (but without the cute, tail wagging sniffer dogs)."  And of course one learns quickly not to pet those "cute tail wagging sniffer dogs."    Brilliant!  I'll chuckle about that all day--and use it as part of our class discussion tomorrow.   Certainly you have to offer it to #MOOC MOOC . . .   but, beware, he eats cute tail wagging dogs for breakfast.


Sole reason for signature track? Assurance of learning and of taking learning opportunities.

I'm signed up for one course on edX (Jazz Appreciation with Jeff Helmer at UT Austin - terrific if you get the chance - jazz is also a neat metaphor for group interactive learning) and a couple on Coursera. I'm doing my level best to keep up with all three, but Cathy's HigherEd course is for me the most important (okay, okay, Jazz is actually more important to me personally, but HigherEd is my profession :-) ). Signature track acts as a small incentive for me to keep up with the readings and undertake the assignments, in order to assure my learning. I'm a reasonably well driven person, but every little helps.

It also - and this is a sad indictment of our times - evidences that I have truly been active in the course. One of my professional societies periodically asks for such evidence. Maybe in this case I should follow Groucho's maxim: "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member", but then again it is a useful club to be a member of.

My experience of signature track sign-up was a little frustrating - it took quite a little time - but I didn't find it onerous, and if someone wants to hold onto a picture of me - well, I have a face for radio!

Signature track is optional. For serial certificate collectors (like me) its part of a rich package of incentives to take courses, although the real incentive remains the opportunities for learning in terrific courses like Higher Ed.

As a frequent flyer by air and on the Internet, I also love Mark's metaphor. Woof!