Two Thoughts on the crash of the “Fundamentals of Online Education” MOOC

I actually almost signed up for the Coursera MOOC “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,” and now that it has gone (apparently?) terribly wrong, I wish I had been there. As it is, I’m relying on the reports. The basics:

  • According to this post and this post from George Siemens, the ironically named course was canceled in large part because of what sounds like bad planning and application. Comments on Siemens’ posts also suggest that it wasn’t Coursera who shut it down but the instructor, Georgia Tech’s Dr. Fatimah Wirth. More on that in a moment.
  • Inside Higher Ed ran a piece “MOOC Mess” that also highlights the basic problems and that also links to a couple of other useful sites/links to things about this “mess.” For example…
  • From How People Learn Online comes FOE MOOC Notes.  This is from a web site of a group of researchers at SUNY Albany and these notes appear to have been taken by Peter Shea. All you have to do is look through his five entries about the class to recognize that this was not very well thought-out to begin with and in less than a week, it went from being bad to being yanked off stage.
  • And then from the site online learning insights comes “How NOT to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix it.” One of the “fun facts” I gleaned from this reading was that Wirth was apparently having students do some sort of group project. In an online class with 40,000+ students. That might have been a really bad idea….

I’m working my way right now through E-Learning and Digital Cultures (with my English 516 students), so I don’t have the time nor desire to pile on too much more. I do want to mention two things for now though:

First, this reminds me of a conversation a friend and comp/rhet colleague and I had last summer on the golf course. I thought I had blogged about this already, but maybe not. We were talking about MOOCs and Coursera and the like, and as this person pointed out, Coursera is operating as a Silicon Valley VC start-up, which is essentially the opposite approach of the way higher education works. What he meant (and if he didn’t mean this, this is what I mean) is these start-up companies race to market as fast as they possibly can to attract users and attention and market share which in turn attracts more start-up money. This might make a certain amount of sense in developing an app where being first matters at least as much (probably more) than being best, and also where it’s always possible to push out an update of that app. In other words, the mode here seems to be to develop/build first and think later.

In higher ed and in my department– and certainly when it comes to developing new courses– we think first and then build. So, if Wirth proposed teaching a new course about the “Fundamentals of Online Education” at EMU, it would have had to have been reviewed and approved by all kinds of different committees within a program, a department, a college, and beyond. All along the way, different faculty and administrators would have insisted on seeing documentation (a syllabus, a bibliography, sample assignments, etc.) to get an idea of how this was all going to work. And if that had been done with a course like this at EMU, I’m guessing that at some point, someone along the line would have said “you know, having students do group work in an online class where there’s thousands of them all over the world is insane, right?”

But since Coursera seems most interested in capturing the MOOC market with sheer volume, vetting courses appears to be something to worry about later. This isn’t the first example of how that strategy might not be a great one with courses, but it is certainly the most dramatic.

Second, I find it intriguing to think of the “control” of these courses and the implications that has for the rights of students and beyond.  Siemens points out rightfully that what’s really awful about Wirth just turning her course off was it usurps the rights of the learners. “This incident is significant. MOOCs are nothing without learners. In this instance, it looks like the instructor decided to shut down the course. Faculty own the content, Coursera owns the platform. But neither should own the conversation. That belongs to the learners. The difficultly is that many learners interact in Coursera forums.”

But beyond that important and basic issues of learners’ rights, it makes me wonder about how this might play out in more traditional higher education. Suppose I started teaching a course– even a small one, with 15 or 20 students– and after a few class sessions, I decided it just wasn’t going well and I was just going to stop. How would that go over? Well, I am guessing that once the students complained (and rightfully so), my department head would tell me to get my ass back in there and make it work, that I couldn’t just “walk away” from a course. Faculty have a lot of freedom, but I don’t think that extends to just not doing anything.

“That’s an unfair comparison, Steve. Coursera courses are free and they don’t offer any real credit.” True, but if Coursera wants to be taken seriously and to ever be anything other than a novelty act– and I think it’s clear that Coursera desperately wants to be taken seriously and wants to desperately make money selling its courses to paying customers (students and universities)– then they had better get a handle on these kinds of problems, and they better get a hold of them in a hurry.

 

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