I have the forum data for several MOOCs. Can I legally share it with someone else without going through IRBs or some other administrative process?

The data contain timestamp, post title, post body, and username. Since all data was publicly available by browsing the forum as a MOOC user, I would tend to believe I can legally share it.

I am located in the United States, if that matters.

  • Are you deliberately asking only about legal issues? Or are you interested in ethical issues as well? – ff524 Nov 17 '15 at 22:01
  • @ff524 Yes only interested in legal issues. – Franck Dernoncourt Nov 17 '15 at 22:17

The answer may depend on the MOOC platform. Based on a quick read of the TOS for a couple of the more popular MOOC platforms, I would say:

  • Coursera: Probably not. Coursera allows you to share your own postings, but not anyone else's.
  • edX: No. The TOS specifically calls out User Postings as content that you are forbidden to download in bulk. However, like Coursera and Udemy, edX allows you to retain rights to your own postings.
  • Udemy: Probably not. Udemy and you can share your postings, but you cannot share someone else's postings.

Coursera's Terms of Service, to which you agree when you register and use their service, state:

All students participating in the class must agree to abide by the following code:

  1. I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes, exams, projects, and other assignments available to anyone else (except to the extent an assignment explicitly permits sharing solutions). This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any solutions provided by the course staff or others.

Also (boldface added):

The Services enable you to share your content, such as homework, quizzes, exams, projects, other assignments you submit, posts you make in the forums, and the like ("User Content"), with Coursera, instructors, and/or other users. You retain all intellectual property rights in, and are responsible for, the User Content you share.


Coursera respects the intellectual property rights of our users, Content Providers, and other third parties and expects our users to do the same when using the Services.


You also aren't allowed to:

  • Reproduce, transfer, sell, resell, or otherwise misuse any content from our Services, unless specifically authorized to do so.

edX's Terms of Service:

[Y]ou agree not to scrape, or otherwise download in bulk, any edX Site content, including but not limited to a list or directory of users on the system, User Postings or user information, online textbooks, course materials, or trademarks and logos.

But also (boldface added):

By submitting or distributing your User Postings, you affirm, represent, and warrant (1) that you have the necessary rights, licenses, consents, and/or permissions to reproduce and publish the User Postings and to authorize edX and its users to reproduce, modify, publish, and otherwise use and distribute your User Postings in a manner consistent with the licenses granted by you below, and (2) that neither your submission of your User Postings nor the exercise of the licenses granted below will infringe or violate the rights of any third party. You, and not edX, are solely responsible for your User Postings and the consequences of posting or publishing them.


By submitting or distributing your User Postings, you hereby grant to each user of the Site a non-exclusive license to access and use your User Postings in connection with their use of the Site for their own personal purposes.

Udemy's Terms:

The content you post as a student or instructor (including courses) remains yours. By posting courses and other content, you allow Udemy to reuse and share it but you do not lose any ownership rights you may have over your content.


When you post content, comments, questions, reviews, and when you submit to us ideas and suggestions for new features or improvements, you authorize Udemy to use and share this content with anyone, distribute it and promote it on any platform and in any media, and to make modifications or edits to it as we see fit.

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  • Thanks. in the case of Coursera, isn't sharing forum data compatible with "[the students] retain all intellectual property rights [on their postings]", as long as we make sure this is clear when sharing the data? – Franck Dernoncourt Nov 17 '15 at 21:48
  • 4
    No, because that statement is trying to say that "you" retain all intellectual property rights on your postings, not anyone else's. – mkennedy Nov 17 '15 at 21:53

Here is my instinctive answer: it depends on what you do with it. If you want to use it for research, you probably need IRB approval. This is really no different than using student exams for research. On the other hand, if you just want to make them available as a "blob of data", then the situation may be different.

The thing is this, though: If it turns out that you do need IRB approval after you have already used the data or made it available, you're in hot water. The pain associated with this situation is so large that you really don't want to get there. My recommendation therefore is: Make an appointment and walk over to your IRB office and discuss the situation with them. That'll cost you 30 minutes. If they say that you don't need IRB approval, that's a small investment. If they say that you do need IRB approval, you will want to know this before you do anything with the data, and in that case (given all the attendant CITI training, writing the IRB application, etc), the 30 minutes will still be a small investment.

Trying to avoid IRB review by asking a bunch of people on the internet via a 3-paragraph, 5-sentence question that leaves out all of the important information, is not a smart strategy.

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  • 1. What important information is missing from the question? I'd be glad to add it. 2. I find that putting knowledge in a public place is useful. – Franck Dernoncourt Nov 18 '15 at 2:37
  • I agree that it is useful. But that's an opinion, and my opinion does not always agree with what the law says I can or cannot do. What was missing from the question was, for example, whether user names are identifiable. Also whether the data contains any data that reveals anything about grades. Finally, how that data is going to be used makes a difference. The point really is: don't get yourself into a position where you might have to legally justify what you morally justified to yourself. – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 18 '15 at 19:33

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