Oh, the irony: Coursera suspends online course about how to run an online course

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A Coursera instructor offering an online course on how to manage an online course has apparently given her students – all 40,000 of them – an unintentional lesson on how not to do just that.

Just a week after its launch, a course on the “Fundamentals of Online Learning” was suspended after complaints by students about technical glitches, confusing instructions and problems with the group-oriented design of the class.

Led by Fatimah Wirth, an instructional designer at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the class was intended to cover online pedagogy, course design, assessment, web tools and other relevant topics.  But, as first reported by Inside Higher Ed, several of the students – many of whom are educators and online learning experts themselves – quickly took to Twitter and their own blogs to document the “MOOC Mess.”

On her blog, Online Learning Insights, educator and instructional designer Debbie Morrison called it “the disaster at Coursera.”

Others on Twitter were similarly critical:

In an email sent over the weekend, Coursera told students that it was temporarily suspending the class to make improvements. In a subsequent email, the company said that given student interest in resuming the class, it had reopened some of the class forums to get feedback from students but has not yet indicated when it will relaunch the entire course.

Coursera: Instructor was trying a new approach

Wirth was not immediately available for comment, but Coursera founder Andrew Ng said that even though the result may not have been ideal, he supports the instructor’s attempt to try new formats.

“I really believe in the experimentation,” he said. “I think Fatimah was trying to be a leader. Despite the outcome, I give her a lot of credit for pushing the envelope.”

In addition to running her own class, Ng said, Wirth has been helping Georgia Tech with several of their other (more successful) classes. In this case, he said, she wanted to try a new approach to group learning online but there wasn’t adequate time to put in place the technology and infrastructure needed to support it.

Peter Shea, an associate professor at the University at Albany’s schools of education and informatics, who blogged about his experience in the class, told GigaOM the chaos started when Wirth instructed students to break themselves into groups using a Google doc. The document crashed and students started deleting the names of peers, and when Wirth provided further email instructions and posted a video on what to do, it apparently led to more confusion and technical hiccups.

“There were just a lot of missteps,” he said. “And with 40,000 people watching, I can imagine that it could be quite an ordeal for the instructor. “

He said it wasn’t just that the instructions were unclear but that it seemed as though insufficient thought had been given to the design of the class.  In offline classes and even more contained online classes, small groups can be an effective way to explore theory and open-ended content, but instructing thousands of people to break themselves into groups of twenty presents a unique set of problems.

But instead of foreseeing that issue from the outset or adapting to the problems in real time, students say the instructor mostly tried to continue with her original format.

Balancing professor innovation with student will

“What derailed the course was her trying to control forming groups,” Morrison told GigaOM. “She was prescriptive.”

From her experience as an educator — and as a student of two other Coursera classes — Morrison said massive online classes (MOOCs) are student-centric, not professor-centric. The online learning environment is entirely different from its offline counterpart and instructors can’t expect a top-down approach to work. In other Coursera classes she’s taken, Morrison said, students have created Facebook groups, organized Google hangouts and formed other online groups not because the instructor told them too, but because they wanted to.

“The whole experience of the MOOC is for students to drive the learning,” she said. “It’s spontaneous.”

From an instructor perspective, the fallout from this class also seems to highlight the need for flexibility and a format that can accommodate massive scale.  But as Coursera pushes ahead with plans to enable students to get credit for online classes and fee-based “verified certificates” for those who want to impress potential employers, this incident could raise broader questions about the need for more quality control and oversight.

In a step that could help streamline future classes, Ng said Coursera is starting to request that universities post their content on the site a month before the course starts so that Coursera has adequate time to review the course, provide feedback and make sure it can provide the proper support.

Despite their experiences, Morrison and Shea said they wouldn’t be dissuaded from taking additional courses in the future.

“Things will have fits and starts,” said Shea, adding that he too was interested in future Coursera courses. “This is just an example of growing pains associated with a new medium.”

This article was updated at 3:55 pm ET with comments from Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng.

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