2U’s edtech ethics submission criticised

Executives at private course supply giant provided testimonials to government in their roles as former students

三月 23, 2023
Person dressed with a large cardboard box covering his head to illustrate 2U’s edtech ethics submission criticised
Source: Getty

The US government, in weighing new ethics-based limits on educational technology companies, has received several formal testimonials in the names of satisfied students who did not acknowledge that they are also executives at a major industry leader.

The move by top officials at the curriculum provider 2U, which owns edX, was discovered by the Century Foundation, a progressive thinktank that has urged better federal protections for students and now argues that 2U’s behaviour helps prove its case.

“I don’t think I have ever seen anything like this,” said Robert Shireman, a former US Department of Education official in the Obama administration and now a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “It is not just one person” at 2U submitting the comments, Mr Shireman said. “It is some high-level people with high-level titles.”

The Biden administration announced just last month that it was considering imposing new restrictions on US colleges and universities using private partners, as part of its ongoing campaign to fight low-quality academic programmes.

That policy process, under federal law, requires a formal period in which interested parties can submit comments on the proposed changes. The Century Foundation, in offering its comments on the idea, noted that several other comments already in the government’s database came from people who described positive experiences with 2U while they were students – and the individuals had indeed been students on its courses – but apparently did not identify themselves as current 2U employees.

They included at least three people who appear to be 2U employees with titles of vice-president, the Century Foundation noted.

2U did not deny the situation as described by the Century Foundation.

A spokesperson said: “Any notion that 2U directed employees to withhold information about their employment when submitting comments is absolutely false. Importantly, these employees commented as individuals, and not on behalf of the company, and if they were intent on hiding their identity they could have posted anonymously in accordance with the department’s process.”

2U, founded in 2008, has been through an eventful past two years. It vastly expanded its course production capacity in 2021 when it spent $800 million (£650 million) to buy most of edX, the pioneering non-profit online course platform created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That angered many faculty producing edX content, who described the sale as a betrayal by Harvard and MIT of edX’s non-profit mission to serve students needing free options. And 2U’s stock price has dropped sharply since then, with experts saying it bet too heavily on the idea of converting those edX students into paying customers.

The Century Foundation, in its own formal comments on the Biden proposal, agreed that the government’s stance towards online programme management (OPM) providers needs substantial toughening. It described rampant abuses of students, enabled in a persistently high number of cases by for-profit operators using traditional institutions to cloak pecuniary motivations behind their recruiting and course content strategies.

By contrast, the comment submissions from the people identified as apparent 2U executives argued against any such new regulatory constraints. All three described themselves as graduates of traditional public and non-profit private universities that used 2U partnerships to provide them educational opportunities that otherwise would not have been possible.

Their failure to acknowledge in the comments that they also apparently serve as current vice-presidents at 2U, Mr Shireman said, “seems to be extremely poor judgement and not a good sign about what, at least, this particular OPM is willing to do”.




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