WORKING PAPER • VOL. 6 • N° 25 • August 2020

The Dark Side of the MOOC?

The Rise of EdTech in Times of COVID-19: A Data Protection Challenge for Universities

by Jonas Botta, Postdoctoral Researcher at the German Research Institute for Public Administration and Reader in Human Rights Law at the Berlin School of Economics and Law


The dramatic spread of COVID-19 is causing a profound upheaval in education. Almost overnight, there has been an unprecedented need for educational technologies (“EdTech”) to compensate for the loss of “face-to-face” teaching at schools and universities. Especially for universities, it makes sense to benefit from the numerous offers of e-learning platforms, mainly so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). After all, the choice of topics for online courses is extremely diverse, from introductory courses in programming languages such as Java or Python to modules on the work of William Shakespeare and units on the legislative mechanisms in the EU Multi-Level System.

However, if, for instance, universities want to make EdTech such as MOOCs available to their students as soon as possible, they will not only have to deal with financial and educational but also legal challenges. The virtual seminar room gives rise to completely new questions regarding the privacy of students: Which data protection standards must EU universities observe within the scope of the General Data Protection Regulation if they want to process user data for teaching or research purposes? Which data protection provisions can be invoked by universities if they want to make online studies mandatory? Could universities possibly be liable for data protection violations by the MOOC providers? These are the questions this working paper aims to answer.

Keywords: (Joint) controllership, data processing for scientific research purposes, freely given consent, GDPR, e-learning platforms, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)


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