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Summary:

In the latest critique of massive open online courses (MOOCs), the professor of an online course held up as an example by the media and MOOC providers has decided to shutter his class.

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In an about-face highlighting the ongoing debate surrounding massive open online courses (MOOCs), a professor held up as a “star” in online learning by MOOC providers and the media has decided to cut ties with Coursera.

After reaching more than 40,000 students through his non-credit “Introduction to Sociology” MOOC — and getting the front page treatment in The New York Times — Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier told The Chronicle of Higher Education Tuesday that he will no longer teach his class out of concerns that it could undermine public higher education.

“I think that it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities,” he said. “And I guess that I’m really uncomfortable being part of a movement that’s going to get its revenue in that way. And I also have serious doubts about whether or not using a course like mine in that way would be pedagogically effective.”

The decision reportedly came about after Coursera asked Duneier about licensing his course so that other schools could use the content for so-called blended learning experiences, which combine online and offline instruction. Earlier this summer, the startup said it had partnered with just under a dozen state schools with the goal of using MOOCs to improve educational quality and access at a lower cost.

In the past few months, MOOCs have come under attack from various corners of academia. In April, Amherst rejected a partnership with edX citing concerns that MOOCs could take tuition funding from middle- and lower-tier schools and lead to a degraded model of teaching. And in May, professors at San Jose State University refused to teach an online edX course created by a Harvard professor, arguing that MOOCs come at “great peril” to their university: they said massive online courses could mean that students will be exposed to fewer perspectives and that they could lead to two classes of universities.

But Duneier’s “defection” — as the Chronicle put it — is particularly interesting considering he wasn’t just considered a MOOC convert, but a model MOOC instructor. His decision is also worth noting given that while many professors see MOOCs as a threat, Duneier himself isn’t directly threatened by their encroachment.

It’s further evidence that while MOOCs have captured the media’s attention and the public’s imagination, their future is still quite uncertain.  And — as a recent survey pointed out — even those professors who try out the new teaching format don’t necessarily believe in their effectiveness.

Duneier told the Chronicle that his Coursera class was “one of the greatest experiences of [his] career” and that he’d like to teach another MOOC at some point — but under the right circumstances.

  1. Instead of asking professors about the effectiveness of MOOCs, why not ask the students? While professors are concerned with losing their jobs, I’m sure students all over the world love having access to a quality education without having to cough up $100,000 or more. As a student, I think Coursera is one of the best things to happen to education and I hope they continue to grow and prosper.

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    1. But it is not “quality” education. A good lecture is a wonderful thing, but most real education goes on outside the lecture hall or in informal exchanges. Questions during lecture, office meetings, personalized feedback on writing, etc. do as much or more to educate a student as the lecture. It i also ironic that at the same time a consensus seems to be building that the lecture format is inferior, is the same time that MOOCs promise virtually nothing but lecture.

      I teach both live and online courses, and despite the best of my efforts and the use of innovative technology, my online students do not get half to education that my bricks and mortar student receive. My class is no even MOOC but just an online course that enrolls 50 or so students. I have never met a single professor that teaches online that thinks their students are receiving anywhere close to the same education their local student receive.

      Is it a tolerable option for those who do not have access to a “real” university? Sure. I have rural moms, deployed soldiers, etc, that could not otherwise enroll. But you are doing no favor to traditional student by shifting them to online classes.

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      1. Prof Plum,

        Can you identify why your online students are not receiving as good an education as your live students? How are you judging that, by performance? feedback?

        Many of my college professors were not all that great at teaching. The average student in the average school will likely have mostly average instructors. MOOCs give students access to some of the best instructors in the world. Still, even the best lecturers are ultimately not the best teachers, that is, there are methods of teaching/learning that are much more effective than the ancient art of lecturing. MOOCs just represent a clumsy first step towards the democratization of education. Better models will follow.

        I loved college and being on campus. I started sneaking into university classes when I was in high school. It was intellectually thrilling to be near those people, but most people around the world just can not afford it. Most are not even near a college campus. I believe that it is vital that we do all we can to elevate the education level of the people of this planet. Free and universal public education must be supported by modern universities if they are to live up to their liberal values. At the same time they must restructure themselves to best fit in this new paradigm. It’s going to hurt, but the change is inevitable.

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      2. It is possible to provide personalized feedback and office hours in a MOOC. You just need to utilize the right platform. Perhaps the problem isn’t that MOOC’s can not do the things you say but that having one professor work with several thousand students is what is limiting. Should we work on the ratio of students to instructors within a MOOC, the quality would not have to decrease.

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      3. Professor Plum, there are meet up groups in such MOOc’s like Coursera all over the US and the globe. There is also a discussion forum threaded with many tens of thousands of students discussing the material in informal and formal manners. Also, many of these courses have TA’s and staff answering question and working with students as well. A large portion of the professors also answer the top questions about lectures and homework assignments with additional videos, and/or DQ posts they write themselves. This educational model really is evolving into a winderful educational opportunity beyond just lectures and hw assignments.

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        1. but these ‘peer mentor’ and meet-up groups are essentially the blind-leading-the-blind. If MOOCs can’t effectively provide and assess educational attainment through oversight from a content expert versed in sound pedagogical methods, then the student’s efforts are for naught.

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  2. Claudia Vandenbergh Wednesday, September 4, 2013

    MOOCs aren’t effective anyway. While the professors fear their bread job is going down the river, students of life found anyway better and more creative ways to get the knowledge they need for the future. Sure, many of us are eager to earn a degree and will pay their lifelong depths for it. Is it worth it ? Yes and no. Depends on the field of working. Many jobs aren’t even created in new media terms. The world is about to change. Coursera is a nice platform, but just that. It’s not the way people are learning. It’s just a way of publishing learning contents to a broader audience. But there is so much more knowledge out there. As humans we are learning from each other. So, go and reach out for people who know more then you. Ask them. Exchange, discuss, research, go out of your comfort zone and be brave. We do need digital heroes !

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    1. We are not learning on Coursera? Can you expand that thought with a clear series of premises and conclusions, with actual reasons for your argument? Thanks.

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  3. You can listen to Mozart from Apple I-tunes for 99 cents. But to hear the Mozart Jupiter Symphony live with musicians that have spent weeks rehearsing for a few performances will cost you a pretty penny. Both experiences are the not the same. If they were, no one would listen to live music but use their Ipod. My greatest moments as a teacher came after class over a cup of coffee with a couple of serious students in a Socratic exchange that took their needs and interests into account. I don’t know how we could mass produce that moment.

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  4. Students all around the world now have access to world-class professors. There are middle school students learning high-level math and physics from MOOCs. Students preparing to enter science and engineering fields are using MOOCs to prepare them for college. MOOCs may not work for everyone, but there is no way giving people all around the world access to a free education can be a bad thing.

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    1. I think that Irene has a very good point that does not get recognised enough. Whether you’re unable to get to a bricks and mortar place, or already there, or wanting to take up HE, or whatever, a MOOC allows you contact with educational material, which has to be a good thing. When I was an undergraduate (a long time ago!) I read many chemistry books that each came at topics from their own directions, and it was something like the set theory union of all these that helped turned me into a capable chemist. MOOCs can always act in that role and they have to be a great deal better than nothing. However, like many, I have substantial reservations about trying to adopt a paradigm where the knowledge to be imparted in whole courses is expected to be solely delivered by MOOCs. Rather, I feel that MOOCs are a worthwhile enrichener of the educational experience. As a personal observation, I have been fairly unimpressed by many online lectures from even the most prestigious Universities, mumbling lecturers, unclear expositions, etc. By contrast the Khan academy is reliably brilliant – at least in the many maths classes I have viewed and viewed again.

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    2. EXACTLY..IRENE IS ABSOLUTELY CORRECT. REAL EDUCATION IS KNOWLEDGE AND INFORMATION REVOLVING FROM A VARIETY OF SOURCES THAT CAN BE RELIED UPON A BROAD SPECTRUM OF INDIVIDUAL PERCEPTIONS OR ACTUAL DOCUMENTED FACTS AND EVIDENCE , I BELIEVE THAT IT IS NOW BEING BASED UPON A “CORPORATE” AGENDA AND PEOPLE NEED TO OPEN “BOTH” THEIR EYES AND INVESTIGATE THE TRUE NATURE OF WHO THESE NEW CHANGES ARE REALLY BENEFITING AND WHY ELIMINATING THE AVAILABILITY OF DIFFERENT OPPORTUNITIES AND RESOURCES OF EDUCATION COULD BE IN ANY WAY POSITIVE OR PRODUCTIVE “FOR THE PEOPLE” ..THE ONLY DIRECTION ALL THESE NEW “CHANGES” ARE LEADING TOWARDS IS OUR OWN DEMISE….THERE IS A SAYING BY A MAN NAMED GORE VIDAL.. HE SAYS ” AS SOCIETIES GROW DECADENT,THE LANGUAGE GROWS DECADENT ,TOO.WORDS ARE USED TO DISGUISE,NOT TO ILLUMINATE,ACTION;YOU LIBERATE A CITY BY DESTROYING IT. WORDS ARE TO CONFUSE,SO THAT AT ELECTION TIME PEOPLE WILL SOLEMNLY VOTE AGAINST THEIR OWN INTERESTS….THIS IS THE REALITY OF WHAT IS GOING ON IN OUR COUNTRY,NOT JUST MY PERCEPTION…BUT WHO AM I ANYWAYS..I AM A DIVORCED UNMARRIED STATISTIC WHO WAS A MOM AT 16 AND NO VALIDATED MEANS OF A COLLEGE EDUCATION…GOD BLESS YOU ALL =}

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  5. ”massive online courses could mean that students will be exposed to fewer perspectives and that they could lead to two classes of universities.”

    I would rather “two classes of universities” than the current model of universities: one for the fortunate and nothing for the unfortunate. As McCluskey said it is different between listening to Mozart on your iPod or in front of the Jupiter Symphony but the current choice is in front of Jupiter Symphony or not at all.

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  6. Elliot S. Volkman Wednesday, September 4, 2013

    This is exactly why there are services that either mirror or align with the real goal of an MOOC. Sure, it’s massive and open, but the real aspect is that someone experienced enough wanted to share their knowledge with those who may not be able to access it so readily. In fact, this is the mission of Open Compass/ UReddit. It’s not about the reach of a class, but about the results and encouragement for others to continue to learn. I understand where this professor is coming from, as it’s no different from a programmer automating his job and reducing his position. Though it may be negative towards them, it’s more important to look at the big picture: Continuing education to those who seek it.

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  7. I was involved as a student and as a Community Teaching Assistant in the recent Penn State MOOC on maps and the geospatial revolution.

    It was hugely successful.

    Tens of thousands of students making their first web maps, and thinking critically, holistically, and spatially about issues vital to the 21st Century, including natural hazards, water, energy, climate, biodiversity, population change, food sustainability, human health, and much more.

    I think F2F and MOOCs / distance learning are both important. Just like F2F courses, MOOCs can be taught well and they can be taught poorly.

    I love Irene’s comments about asking the students. Because the overwhelming majority of students in the Mapping MOOC absolutely loved it.

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  8. I just recently learned about MOOCs and I’m currently enrolled in 3 classes. I love them and as a former college graduate I find them fun just to learn about something I find interesting and its a bonus that I’m learning them from top tier universities and professors.

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  9. Debbie Connolly Thursday, September 5, 2013

    Please don’t take my MOOCs away!

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  10. This points to several underlying problems with higher education. First, many professors are not comfortable with the open world. Like the recording industry they want to hold onto their IP and control the distribution. Tapscott points out the vulnerabilities of those who can not manage in an open world. Here is a perfect example. Second, funding is yet to be figured out….this is no different than the challenge “search and retrieval” companies struggled through until the new model.
    Princeton is an elite institution. They have always restricted education to the elite….this should be no shock to anyone that a Tenured, high paid Professor from Princeton pulled out!

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