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More growing pains for Coursera: in another slip-up, professor departs mid-course

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For the second time in less than a month, an online course on Coursera has hit a stumbling block.

This weekend, the professor of a ten-week course on “Microeconomics for Managers,” offered through the University of California at Irvine Extension program, told students that he would be leaving the class after only its fifth week.

“Because of disagreements over how to best to conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret,” Richard McKenzie, a professor at the University of California at Irvine’s business school, said in an open note to students.

The news comes just two weeks after another slip-up for the startup, in which Coursera suspended an online class (on how to run an online class, no less) after student complaints about technical glitches and problems with the design of the class.

In a statement, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said McKenzie was not “removed” but “elected to reduce his direct interaction with students because he’s finding it a challenging time commitment to serve such a heterogeneous population of students, with different backgrounds and different access to technology and optional course materials.” Koller emphasized that despite his departure, which was first reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the class will continue, led by course managers, including the assistant dean for distance education at UC Irvine.

Professor wasn’t accustomed to large, diverse audience

Gary Matkin, the dean of distance education for UC Irvine, indicated that the issue was related to how McKenzie regarded the class’s more casual students, who no doubt comprised a large contingent in a class of 37,000 people.

“Professor McKenzie is not accustomed (as few are) in teaching university-level material to an open, large, and quite diverse audience including those who were not seriously committed to achieving the learning objectives of the course or who decided not to or could to gain access to supplemental learning materials,” he told GigaOM in a statement.

In the past year, MOOCs (massive open online courses) have been riding high, attracting millions of dollars in venture investment and thousands of online students. But the two recent Coursera incidents highlight that while the model has the potential to bring educational opportunities to millions of people, it’s still new and limited.

As we wrote at the time, the suspended class earlier this month suggested the need for more quality control and oversight, as well as more flexibility on the part of online professors. This latest setback points to a mismatch between what traditional professors may want to create in an online class and what is currently possible.

In several of his open notes to students (which are quite lengthy, indicating the time and consideration he appears to have given the class), McKenzie writes about commitment to the course and standards. He seemed dismayed that more students wouldn’t purchase a recommended textbook and was disappointed in the quality of the Coursera videos.

In class of 37,000, just 2 percent engage in discussion

More tellingly, he wrote that while he was initially impressed to learn that 37,000 students enrolled in the class, he’s learned that “enrollment count is meaningless.” In the first two weeks, less than 40 percent of students logged in to the class and only a fourth of the students had watched a single video lecture. Less than two percent of the students were actively engaged in the discussions, he said.

“I have truly been impressed with many comments that have been posted. However, I have to worry that the value of the course to serious and active students is being undercut by students who are not a part of the course in any meaningful sense,” he wrote in a note to students in January. “I want to encourage the inactive and uninvolved students to get with the program and take the assignments seriously. If not, I suggest the course would be much improved for the serious and active students and for me if the inactive students would go ahead and dropped the course right now.”

Given Matkin’s comments and the school’s decision to continue the course with other leadership, it seems that this was the biggest point of conflict between McKenzie and UC Irvine Extension. And it makes sense that teachers accustomed to smaller courses and an environment in which students have more uniform levels of motivation and commitment may be uncomfortable with a MOOC. While large open online classes can provide access to many more students, in their current form, they can’t demand equal accountability. For teachers like McKenzie (and his supporters in the class, as well as outside of it), accepting the “casually curious”  can be a challenge but others appreciate the MOOC’s precisely for their ability to accommodate students of varying levels of engagement.

What’s surprising to me is that McKenzie didn’t come to the experience more prepared for the high-enrollment-low-engagement reality. In his first time teaching a MOOC, it’s understandable that he’d encounter a few surprises and have to figure things out along the way. But it makes you wonder about how Coursera brings new instructors on board and whether more preparation might be helpful.

This article was updated at 6:40 pm ET with comments from Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller.

15 Responses to “More growing pains for Coursera: in another slip-up, professor departs mid-course”

  1. I like coursera! One or two teachers quitting coz they can’t handle the setup does NOT mean the entire business model is a failure. This Mckenzie guy should be prepared with this kind of statistics. What if 37,000 were really serious about the course…would he be able to handle it?

    He is very unprofessional to drop out after 5 weeks. He just wasted the time of thousands of serious students who were really counting on him. Most of all, he gave Coursera and his university in a bad light because he couldn’t handle it emotionally. Very unprofessional.

  2. Low engagement level shouldn’t be a problem! Coursera isn’t about expanding universities, but about changing how we think about education. It irritates me how professor McKenzie thinks, most people will give up on getting a certificate after the first or second week when they realize they don’t have time to finish on time, that’s because most of us are not full-time students! That doesn’t mean they don’t take it seriously, it means they’re trying to fit learning into their busy lives. It’s not the best thing, but it’s close, much closer than the university system that will go extinct in a couple of ten years. Speaking for myself I already took 4 courses, 3 in which I got the certificate and 1 that I failed. I take it a bit too seriously and I like it this way even though I have a full-time job and other responsibilities. I’m currently taking 4 courses, and I already filled upcoming courses, but I know that not every one is like me, and most people aren’t like me. Most people want to enjoy learning about new stuff and don’t really hold tight to getting the certificate or watching videos on time.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, teach for the sake of spreading new useful information, and don’t be stubborn about achieving the maximum of learning, instead just concentrate on learning. As long as there are people learning, no matter how serious or how lightly they take it, then we’ve taken a huge step forward from a system so old and so rusty that the fact that it’s still existing in a world such as ours seems unbelievable.

  3. Vikramjit Singh

    Richard Mckenzie always had a bit of issue with diversity even at UC Irvine.

    His “my way or the highway ” approach didn’t yield results when he was the Assistant Dean at UCI and he was forced to step down from his position and continue only as a professor. The issue then as is it now is the professors unease with diversity both of the class and the experience of how to handle it.

    Clearly he seems opinionated and inflexible to handle a MOOC class which is vastly different than a 50-60 college class that only purchases his $87 textbooks and listens to his lectures in a classroom setting.

    Prof Mckenzie should also realize that he has tarnished the image of UC Irvine by such actions since many prospective relationships that he could have formed may be short circuited by his high handed approach.

    • Van Nálam

      i dropped out of this class after 2,5 piece of (120 minutes?) extremely boring videolectures. i think i supposed that the book wont be that important so i will manage the course without it. anyway i’m just noticing that here, in Hungary this 87 $ is the 10% of my monthly salary. For an Indian guy, the cost of a rented aparment… huhh…

  4. Andrew James Feltham

    Any course that is globally free will attract the curious, the well intended, the serious as well as varying degrees of ability. The MOOC concept is new and I guess the free-of-charge aspect is a loss leader to get market share. Nothing wrong with curiosity unless it disturbs others. Surely a multiple level of program distribution is possible. Free to all (curious) – with no forum access or interactive options. Low fee paying to those who seek interactive participation (debutant skills), and a higher fee for the certification option which is likely to attract students who are confident in their ability.
    This would allow a MOOC ethic, and maintain a higher value on certified completions.

    I am following a number of Coursera – the Fantasy and Science fiction course is very interactive with super tutor videos.

    Coursera can certainly count me in as a keen and future student – if the course fees don’t get too high.Having the option to do a course once to see and the second time to commit and pay – may be a reason solution for all.

    • Van Nálam

      not a bad idea… the low paying fee for the interactive participation could be exchanged with: ONE completed course – so you can be extremely poor but still: motivated enogh to gain access to every clever people’s thoughts :)

  5. evanplaice

    The sub-heading should read:
    Microeconomics Instructor teaches MOOC course to apply the economics of scale to book sales. Quits after the realization that the weak theoretical models he has spent his whole life parroting don’t apply in practice.

    Most of us don’t have the luxury of a 4 year hiatus and a 30yr loan as financial support to play ‘grown up’. In the ‘real world’ time and resources are scarce. For the people who can find the time for higher learning, it’s not hard to imagine that they’ll also find a way to make due without luxuries like over-priced textbooks.

    I know, I know it’s appalling. Some people dynamically adapt in spite of their personal limitations as opposed to taking on more debt and accepting process as canon. Bloody extremists! Disgusting!. /s

    In all honesty, I have enrolled in a handful of courses on 3 of the major MOOC sites. The first was on Coursera and I didn’t get to join until the course was already 3 weeks in. I followed for a while and did probably 1/3-1/2 of the assignments before moving on.

    Currently, I’m taking Algorithms I. The instructor Robert Sedgwick is a pretty amazing. The booksite is very useful although, the class is mostly about writing code so I don’t see much point in buying a text copy. Some of the students self-organized study groups via Google+ communities. There is an ongoing a course-relevant dialog via posts weekly video chats where we share notes and help each other out. There’s even a post in the forum for each assignment where people are encouraged to share unit tests they’ve developed.

    I have seem more organized group collaboration in this one course than all of the classes I took over the 2 years I spent at a public university combined. If I had a similar learning environment then I would have seen cause to stay until I completed my degree. Learning isn’t just about an individual’s capacity for knowledge, it’s also important to learn soft skills like how to work as a team.

  6. Nandita Ramesh

    I finished a course and am on to my second course. I like the flexibility it offers. The assignments are challenging and I am getting a pretty good idea on the subject. Also the discussion forums are really helpful. Fellow students post links to great resources for learning.

  7. I’ve signed up for over 10 courses on Coursera, have completed one, and am now retaking one that I could not finish last fall. The flexibility of MOOCs is what makes them great. You can sign up for a course; attend a few “lectures”; see if the information is stimulating or what you anticipated; see if the Professor is adept at presenting his/her material and challenging you with assignments. And if time constraints do prevent you from completing coursework, then hopefully the course will stay around, so that you do get to soak up the material in a later offering.

    Also, one of my current courses presents a topic of interest (Database Technologies), but I only want to hear the lectures and am not really motivated to work the assignments (maybe this will change in the future and I’ll go back and work the assignments in a later offering).

    Discussion groups are great for zeroing in on issues you may be having, as others are no doubt experiencing similar issues. And any social interactions are pretty much with folks who share similar interests as you. I for one see no downside to MOOCs. Seems like a much more fulfilling use of time than many other options out there…just saying…

    On the flip side, I hope Coursera will let me know if they’re okay with students like me…if they figure out a revenue model, I’ll be happy to pay a nominal fee to be able to listen to and learn from some of the excellent Professors I’ve come across…though I might not sign up for 10 courses at a time in that case :^)

    • William Moore

      I’m with you. I’ve signed up for several, the professors are remarkably good. Finished one course, and tried another three times and still couldn’t get through it. Material was difficult for me at least. Seems like some people are looking down at his approach, but I think it has a lot going for it (teacher expertise, not having to travel to class, price). Coursera has done a great job IMHO.

  8. Hmm this could be a bit of a problem. I’m taking three courses right now and despite my extremely busy schedule, I find time to do every assignment and watch all the videos. I would be very disappointed if this happened to one the courses I was enrolled in.

    The discussion forums are quite helpful but if every single on of those forty thousand students started posting, I’d go crazy.

    I can sympathize with the professor for not being able to accept the fact that so there are so many casual learners. So many casual learners could mean they are resorting to illegal means to secure credits and exploiting the loopholes that come with MOOCs.

    I honestly think a lot of these bumps can be evened out by introducing the necessity for a photo identity. Perhaps Coursera could start charging a small amount ($1) per course so they filter out candidates who aren’t truly interested (of course, this has its own advantages and disadvantages and is probably a bad suggestion).

    • Nandini

      Why would you post suggestion and then unianimously decide it is a bad suggestion? Do hope one of the courses you are pursuing is in self confidence… :) BTW, the 1$ course fee is not a bad idea at all… I’d not be surprised if Coursera goes down that path sooner than expected.

  9. Arunas Sileris

    Skimmed through the article. The professor should not be complaining about 2pct engagement in discussion. It’s almost seven hundred students. Having participated in one of coursera’s courses myself I have to note that big discussion forums add little value, as the audience is too diverse and the differences are too big.
    I totally enjoyed the Gamification course on coursera, but well probably it’s because our professor was a real expert in the field and knew how to keep people engaged;)