Robert Ghrist, a professor of mathematics and electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, knows that wielding vast networks on behalf of nonuniversity benefactors can be tricky business.
Mr. Ghrist specializes in applied topology, an abstract math field. In practice, topological math can help someone harness huge collections of sensory inputs—like those collected by cellphones, for example—to model large environments and solve problems.
The Department of Defense has enlisted Mr. Ghrist to do research along those lines. The Penn professor knows he has little power over how the Pentagon might use his insights. But he says that no longer bothers him.
“I have long ago dealt with the issue of: What if something I create is put to bad use?” the mathematician says. “And I have found that, throughout history, the benefit of building good things outweighed the hazards,” he says, citing lasers and the Internet as net-positive inventions despite ample opportunity for abuse. “That’s true in my research; it’s also true in my teaching.”
That ethical dilemma became relevant to Mr. Ghrist’s teaching only recently, when he began teaching a massive open online course on single-variable calculus through Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based MOOC company.
A group of philosophy professors at San Jose State University last month raised concerns to Michael Sandel, a government professor at Harvard, for his offering a MOOC through another provider, the nonprofit edX. The administration at San Jose State is encouraging its faculty members to use edX courses in their own teaching.