Wednesday, February 6, 2013

MOOC meltdown

original photo: John Loo
So the MOOC news for today is that a Coursera course on "Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application" had to be suspended because it devolved into chaos after 40,000 students (many of them professionals experienced in one way or another with teaching and/or online learning) tried to put themselves into groups with little direction from the professor. Here's the article at Inside Higher Ed, and here's a blog post with multiple links to other coverage.   The news even made the Wall Street Journal (you can only see the first few paragraphs without a subscription, so I won't link, but the blog linked above did), so presumably Helen Dragas and the other members of UVA's Board have seen it.

A lot of the analysis is focusing on course design (and coming from course designers), and it sounds like there were some significant issues in that department (both with parts of the course for which the instructor was responsible, and with parts that I would have thought were Coursera's responsibility).    However, I can't help thinking that this debacle also suggests the value of the behind-the-scenes labor that professors do, including almost-clerical stuff like putting people in groups.  As Jonathan Rees points out, it also raises real questions about student-centric models of teaching (which, as I pointed out in a comment over at his blog, require a lot more unobtrusive guidance from the professor than most people realize; this business of helping students make/discover their own knowledge is hard, time-consuming work).

Mind you, I teach online, and I give my online students considerable leeway to choose their own topics, and find many of their own readings, sources, etc.  That's precisely why I have doubts about how much real learning MOOCs, given the "massive" descriptor, can enable.  I don't have any doubt that some people can learn well alone, and/or in self-constructed/selected groups.   But that's not a class.  A class requires an instructor who is in a position to give substantive feedback adapted, if not to each student individually, then at least to a particular group of students.  That's why we cost (at least a bit of) money.  (And that's why we're tired.  Very, very tired.)

[Edited to add: and in somewhat related news, the Harvard cheating scandal has finally ground to a close, with somewhere around 70 out of 279 students in the class required to take a leave of absence.  One Harvard professor (and former Dean of the College), writing last fall, has some smart things to say about the role the size of the class may have played in leaving students unclear about what was and wasn't allowed in the way of collaboration/consultation, with each other or with the TAs.  Since this class is precisely the sort of popular course at a big-name school that many MOOC enthusiasts imagine making available to the masses, it seems like there might be a connection.]


  1. Yeah, when I heard that the instructor was having the, what, ten thousand or so students break into groups by signing up for them (i.e., self-selecting), I knew that alone would have doomed the course. That is far, far too many students to make using such a laissez-faire method effective. Of course, I hate MOOCs in general. So maybe I'm not the one to ask.

  2. Oh, can't type...too...busy...laughing...

  3. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I am with Stella.

  4. Massive open online cockup sounds about right.
    Nice to see Helen Dragas' name again.....

  5. "....and in somewhat related news, the Harvard cheating scandal has finally ground to a close, with somewhere around 70 out of 279 students in the class required to take a leave of absence."

    They should be praying to their Gods I wasn't there because the interrogations would STILL be going on and that "leave of absence" would be 40 years with the North Koreans in those secret birch logging camps* in Siberia.


    * Where IKEA gets its nice white wood for those ferkakte tables with the spare parts that piss off the hipsters who buy them.