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Analysis

How Online Course Providers Track Learners — Privacy Analysis

We put 50 online course providers to the test using the open-source privacy inspector Blacklight.

Privacy Analysis Illustration

If there’s something we’ve learned after nine years running Class Central, it’s the importance of digital marketing in the strategy of online education providers. Some of the largest online degree providers spend millions of dollars every month just on Google Ads.

These organizations tend to rely heavily on third-party tools to learn more about their users and potentially target them through ad campaigns. But some of these tools can raise privacy concerns and allow big tech companies to follow you around the Web.

Last week, the nonprofit news outlet The Markup launched Blacklight, an open-source privacy inspector developed by Surya Mattu that reveals to what extent a website tracks you.

We decided to put to the test 50 online course providers which, between them, receive over 300M1 visits every month and have raised billions of dollars from the public and private sector. Here are the results.

Summary Results

Provider Ad Trackers Third-Party Cookies Facebook / Google Tracking
Western Governors University 24 42 Yes / Yes
Springboard 23 30 Yes / Yes
Harvard Business School Online 22 39 Yes / Yes
Coursera 19 30 Yes / Yes
Pluralsight 18 6 Yes / No
A Cloud Guru 17 27 Yes / Yes
Galvanize 17 18 Yes / Yes
Udacity 17 16 Yes / Yes
Udemy 16 15 Yes / Yes
Thinkful 15 20 Yes / Yes

Providers with the highest number of ad trackers2

In total, we ran 50 online course providers through the privacy tool. Above, you can see the 10 providers with the highest number of ad trackers on their website. Below, you can see statistics on some of the ways providers track their learners.

The 50 providers tested:

  • Receive over 300M visits per month between them.
  • Include 10.7 web trackers on average.
  • Store 13.9 third-party cookies on average.

Of the 50 providers tested:

  • 90% let Google track you.
  • 90% let Facebook track you.
  • 52% record your mouse and keystrokes.

Note that the mere presence of an ad tracker on a website isn’t necessarily a red flag. There are legitimate reasons for their use. However, when they’re used in excess or when they involve piping user data through big tech companies, they inevitably raise privacy concerns.

If you’re wondering, here’s how Class Central fares when run through Blacklight.

Methodology

To build our list, we decided to focus on online course providers that target adult learners. We tried to pick a comprehensive, albeit non-exhaustive, sample of providers spanning across different categories — for instance:

  • MOOC providers, such as Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn.
  • Online bootcamps, such as Lambda School, Thinkful, and General Assembly.
  • Online degree providers, such as WGU, SNHU, and ASU Online.
  • Tech e-learning platforms, such as Udacity, Udemy, and Pluralsight.
  • University professional education, such as eCornell, HBS Online, and GetSmarter.

The Markup's privacy tool, Blacklight

We ran each provider’s homepage through Blacklight and compiled the results in a table. You can learn more about how the privacy tool works here. The table shows seven features:

  • Ad trackers: These are technologies used for collecting user information and targeting users with ads. For example, if you open an email promoting a particular product, the company might send you a follow-up email with a coupon to encourage you to buy it.
  • Third-party cookies: These are small pieces of text stored on your computer by another domain than the one you’re visiting. For example, when you visit website A, website B might set a cookie. If you ever visit website B, they’ll read the cookie and recognize you.
  • Canvas fingerprinting: This method leverages the fact that computers with different hardware might render visuals differently. For example, if two visitors render an image similarly, the website may deduce that the two visits came from the same computer.
  • Session recording: This is when a website monitors all your actions, such as mouse position and clicks. It often also includes key logging. For instance, by monitoring mouse movements, a website can build a heatmap of how you interact with their web page.
  • Key logging: This is when a website monitors what you’re typing as you do it. For instance, if you’re asked for your phone number and you start typing it but then decide not to submit it, the website could still record it because they monitored your keystrokes.
  • Facebook Pixel: This is a piece of code from Facebook that allows to track you as you go from a website to Facebook. For example, if you check a product on a webshop that uses Facebook Pixel and later visit Facebook, you may be shown an ad for that product.
  • Google Remarketing Audiences: This is a Google Analytics feature that allows to serve custom ads across the Google Network. For instance, if you search a product on a website that uses the feature and then visit YouTube, you may be shown related ads.

Finally, we sorted the table by the first feature: the number of ad trackers present on the web page.

Full Results

You can find the full results table here.

References

  1. According to SimilarWeb.
  2. The data was collected on September 28, 2020. We noticed that over several runs, the tool could output different results, but these were always in the same ballpark. As providers continue to tweak their platforms, you might see different numbers.

Disclaimer: Class Central has or has had affiliate or advertising relationships with some of the providers in this analysis.

Dhawal Shah Profile Image

Dhawal Shah

Dhawal is the founder and CEO of Class Central.
Manoel Cortes Mendez Profile Image

Manoel Cortes Mendez

Software engineer and online graduate student in computer science passionate about education, technology, and their intersection.

Comments 1

  1. Avatar

    Ronny De Winter

    Lightbeam extension on FireFox allows you to visualise the tracking in a graph

    Reply

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