Friday, January 22, 2016
I am taking a MOOC from University of Illinois and Coursera on digital marketing. I've been trying to take at least one course a semester. Both the underlying material, and the intricacies of online education have been interesting. I chose this course because I have family members in the digital marketing area, and I am taking (and discussing) this course with them.
Later, I may discuss some of the substantive take-aways from the course --- I have completed about 50% of the course so far --- but in this post I want to discuss business/academic entanglement.
In this digital marketing class, an assignment on co-creation (by firms & their customers) consisted of creating an online account with Starbucks, submitting an idea for consideration, and reporting how the idea was received by commenters. This was a useful exercise and it made the concept come alive, but I couldn't help wondering if Starbucks was somehow involved with University of Illinois and/or Coursera in creating this assignment. To be clear, I have no idea whether Starbucks was or was not involved. But, in any event, with the thousands (and maybe 10s of thousands) of people who are taking this course, this assignment seemed like a win for Starbucks. Well, actually, this idea submission portion of Starbucks' website was not functioning properly, leading to many, many complaints from the students on the course discussion boards, but the assignment could have been a big win for Starbucks. And eventually, a work-around was suggested, and I assume that many, many people still created online accounts with Starbucks when they might not have otherwise. The creation of those accounts, and the simple brand exposure, certainly has some value to Starbucks.
Anyway, my question is this: Are course creators ethically obligated to disclose entanglement or abstain from entanglement between businesses and their educational institutions?
Even if there is no entanglement (I am thinking about direct or indirect payments for the assignment), how should potential benefits to the educational institution be treated? For example, what if the University of Illinois plans to pitch Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz on making a contribution toward a new campus building and plans to bring up this assignment? Again, I don't know if there was any entanglement here, and I assume it was just an innocent and useful assignment. But with the increasing corporatization of higher education, I wonder about the appropriate boundaries between businesses and universities.
Thoughts from our readers are welcomed.