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Margin Notes

A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age

Twelve deep thinkers on online learning, including two Canadians, sound off.


A dozen deep thinkers on education released this morning a Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age, a fairly stirring document which the authors say is meant to refocus the conversation about online learning on the rights of students.

Two of the 12 signatories who drafted the bill are Canadians Bonnie Stewart, a PhD candidate and sessional lecturer in the faculty of education at the University of Prince Edward Island, and Mark J. Gierl, a professor of educational psychology, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Educational Measurement and director of the Centre for Research in Applied Measurement and Evaluation at the University of Alberta.

The authors have been working on the document since Dec. 14, first brought together by Sebastian Thrun, the computer science professor at Stanford University who founded Udacity, a purveyor of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Bonnie Stewart emailed me about the bill, noting that she has been working on MOOCs “for a few years now, since they were an emergent (and solely Canadian) phenomenon.” Explaining the thinking behind the bill, she writes: “The key point … is that as online learning suddenly seems to be hitting the mainstream of administrative and faculty conversations, against the backdrop of MOOCs and fiscal pressures, it’s important that changes be made with learners at their centre.”

The preamble reads, in part:

We believe that online learning represents a powerful and potentially awe-inspiring opportunity to make new forms of learning available to all students worldwide, whether young or old, learning for credit, self-improvement, employment, or just pleasure. We believe that online courses can create “meaningful” as well as “massive” learning opportunities. …

[Yet,] we worry that this moment is fragile … As we begin to experiment with how novel technologies might change learning and teaching, powerful forces threaten to neuter or constrain technology, propping up outdated educational practices rather than unfolding transformative ones. … For that reason, we feel compelled to articulate the opportunities for students in this brave electronic world, to assert their needs and – we dare say – rights.

The bill is framed in the context of learning in the digital age, but is really pretty universally applicable to all learning. The document states, for example:

We believe that our culture is increasingly one in which learning, unlearning and relearning are as fundamental to our survival and prosperity as breathing. To that end, we believe that all students have inalienable rights which transfer to new and emerging digital environments.

These rights are:

  • The right to access
  • The right to privacy
  • The right to create public knowledge
  • The right to own one’s personal data and intellectual property
  • The right to financial transparency
  • The right to pedagogical transparency
  • The right to quality and care
  • The right to have great teachers
  • The right to be teachers

The document also outlines various principles “to which the best online learning should aspire.” They are:

  • Global contribution
  • Value
  • Flexibility
  • Hybrid learning
  • Persistence
  • Innovation
  • Formative assessment
  • Experimentation
  • Civility
  • Play

The document finishes with a flourish – a sentiment to which any teacher could acribe: “We must remember that the best learning, above all, imparts the gift of curiosity, the wonder of accomplishment, and the passion to know and learn even more.”

Cathy Davidson, another of the signatories, stresses that this manifesto is not meant to be the last word on the subject: “We see this … as a beginning, not an end, to a conversation we all need to be having with one another.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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