EdX is a massive open online course (MOOC) provider and online learning platform, offering university-level courses on a range of subjects to anyone who has an internet connection. Unlike other MOOCs, EdX is non-profit, and uses an open source platform. Founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in 2012, individual courses are offered by various English speaking universities around the world, many of which are free to participate in.
A few members of the BestVPN staff recently completed EdX’s new ‘Cyberwar, Surveillance and Security’ (‘Cyber 101x’) course. This was run by the University of Adelaide (Australia), and participation was free (with the option of receiving a ‘verified identity’ certificate for $50 USD.)
Cyber101x was developed in response to growing public concern over widescale surveillance of citizens by their governments, as exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013. The course lasts six weeks, with coursework taking around three hours per week to perform (although this will of course vary depending on the individual.) A breakdown of the topics covered:
How the internet works – Structure and governance, The NEW Internet (living in a post-Snowden world)
Hacking and Leaking – WikiLeaks, Snowden, Responses to Snowden, Anonymous (considering the actions of whistleblowers and the role they play)
Security and National Security – Five Eyes, Domestic Law, International law and surveillance
Surveillance, Privacy and Political Engagement – The democratic question in the context of metadata collection, Privacy in the context of metadata and surveillance, What does the public justification in the context of metadata mean?, Privacy, independent review and dissent
Cyber Security and Cyber Warfare – Internet security and state responsibility, Cyber operations, the use if force and armed attack, Law of armed conflict
The Future of the Internet – We need an invasive NSA, Addressing Snowden, Looking to the future.
As you can see, the course covers a wide range of topics that will be of keen interest to anyone interested in cyber-surveillance issues.
Actual coursework consists of watching number of video lectures, plus interviews with experts in the field (including prestigious luminaries such as cryptography whizz Bruce Schneier). This is followed by a requirement to contribute to wiki discussions, and to answer a ‘knowledge check’ quiz each week based on issues discussed in the videos.
The video lectures and discussions are in-depth and thought-provoking, and serve to provide solid a foundation upon which to explore this fascinating and important subject further. The actual coursework, however, is considerably less challenging, and I would imagine that few participants will struggle to achieve the 50 percent score required to pass (despite one counter-intuitive question that despite unlimited tries, not a single participating BestVPN staff member was able to answer correctly).
Assessment and criticisms
Any course on such a topical and politically sensitive subject will inevitably cause some controversy. The weight given to some issues over others, how the material is presented, which guest speakers are featured, and so on, must reflect the political, philosophical, and moral lookout of its organizers, and it is almost certain that many participants will disagree with at least some of the points made.
I, for example, found that far too much weight and credence was given to claims that global surveillance has successfully prevented terrorist attacks (we know, for example that the NSA has deliberately misled the public over precisely such claims), and that too much time was spent discussing mechanisms of internal dissent when it has been proven time and again that without public transparency such systems cannot be trusted.
I also feel that the entire ‘surveillance verses security’ debate is deliberately misleading, and needs to be reframed away from such an artificial polarization. As such it suits politicians’ need for snappy soundbites which they use to convince an intimidated public to sacrifice their most basic human rights in exchange for an illusion of safety.
This, however, is precisely the point and strength of the course. It raises vitally important issues that are central to citizens’ relationship with their governments in a world where technological advances have given said governments previously unimaginable powers to invade our privacy, and invites discussion and informed debate around them.
As a broad introduction to many of the complex moral, political, and practical issues we must all grapple with in a post-Snowden, surveillance-heavy world, Cyber101x is a success.
Many participants may find themselves disagreeing with the details of what is presented, but such dissent is a healthy and democratic response, and the course provides a strong background upon which to build an understanding of the issues involved, and for participants to explore their own reactions to these.
The coursework is undemanding, but this is perhaps appropriate for a free course designed to introduce a new audience to an important new area of debate and investigation. The debate itself is maturely presented, and as long as participants are willing to bring their own critical thinking skills to bear on it, should be a highly worthwhile exercise for anyone interested in the subject.