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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(s goog) 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(s fb) 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.

9 Responses to “Oh, the irony: Coursera suspends online course about how to run an online course”

  1. Russell J. Ivanhoe

    My experience with the course was awful not only because of the technical glitches but also, I am sorry to say, the lectures were horrible. I don’t need an online course for an instructor to read me slides verbatim. There is more to delivering content than just the social aspect. How can social interaction be valuable when the content is bad?

  2. Jenny Hardacre

    I was doing this course. It’s.great – interesting readings and lectures. I’m looking forward to it resuming. The group forming chaos was actually interesting and informative for everyone – we all want to know how (and how not to) do this sort of thing; don’t blame the course leader at all. I was a bit pissed off to find I had been removed from the group I’d originally joined and someone announced ‘This group is only for MBAs’. With 30 years teaching experience I wouldn’t expect my students to do this either. Mind you, I’ve never tried to teach 40, 000 people at once…

  3. 40,000 isn’t many for a MOOC. The Coursera Think Again course has around 171,000 and I believe the Philosophy one has around a quarter of a million students. Only a small percentage finish though! There may be glitches but I’ve now completed and gained a certificate for two MOOC courses (one on Coursera and another on Stanford’s Venture Lab). I got to work with a small group of other students in a global team on the Venture Lab one. Despite being in different world time zones we are still talking to each other regularly on Skype, weeks after we finished. I’m a big fan!

  4. This reminds me of when I was on a course for teaching adults. The lesson was about lesson timing planning and we each had to give a 10 minute lesson to our peers to demonstrate we could fit everything in comfortably. The lesson was so badly timed that there wasn’t enough time for two of us to complete ours so we were asked to come back and do it the following week!

  5. paul martin

    I feel for Fatimah. The worst audience (as various Education leaders have discovered) are other teachers. The benefit for most is that as soon as the door shuts they are in charge and there is a belief that the (physical) open plan innovation leads to a poorer learning environment. As always, technology has apparently let her down and whereas in the real world a distraction can be mastered by plan B there seems to have been an assumption that certain things do not go wrong. It strikes me that the organic world is simply there to keep the inorganic one on the rails.

    • Ezra Freelove

      “In this case, [Andrew Ng] 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.” Dates for a class like this can be pushed back if you are not ready. No one is going to ask for their money back, it is free.