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‘Star’ Coursera prof stops teaching online course in objection to MOOCs

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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.

26 Responses to “‘Star’ Coursera prof stops teaching online course in objection to MOOCs”

  1. The value of MOOCs is unquestionable. It is not about should MOOCs exist or not, it is how large a role should MOOCs play. Currently, I do not think they are fit to replace Universities, however, they are fit to supplement and reduce the overbearing cost of the modern University structure, while challenging the status quo. The ever-rising cost of Universities (paradoxically driven up by the recent raise in high cost administrators and fundraisers) makes satiating curiosity impossible for all but the most financially well off. I was one of the fortunate few to have a nearly free ride (scholarships) and I still often question if it was worth the money. While my honors classes (one of my degrees was an honors degree) fit the common paradigm of a high level college eduction, my regular classes were consistently over populated yet under attended, with many of the students consistently perusing facebook and not participating. Everything but lectures were run by teachers assistants of questionable quality and gross inconsistency. Moocs should not have a difficult time replicating lecture quality. The difficult part will be replicating the real-time question/answer process. I must add that most questions in college classrooms are hollow and for the sheer purpose of getting the teacher’s attention in an attempt at raising grades without merit.
    Institutions of higher learning will always have their place, but a shift in the system is coming and necessary. Using a massive format for certain aspects of classes seems like a given for reducing costs and raising efficiency.
    Currently, I am using Coursera as a means of continued learning and it is honestly amazing. I am able to get a non-trivial understanding of topics that I never had time for in college and even getting to explore fields I would potentially pursue at the graduate level without paying a cent. It is an amazing resource, but you must be self-motivated. College is great for forcing education on the indifferent and unmotivated, Coursera is great for providing structure to those with a drive to learn. It should not replace Universities but Universities do not have a monopoly on learning. There is room in the world for both and we will all be better of if we embrace this new access to education.

  2. You are a somebody who definitely cares about her own and others learning!

    I love the quote and I think that reading all your comments, as a result of this post, clearly demonstrates that learning and knowledge sit in a variety of places and can be disseminated in a number of ways.

    Whether or not MOOCs cease to exist the affordances of technology will find other ways to empower and dis-empower people, it will bring joy and grief, it will change the manner in which we ‘do life’ – look at what ‘smartphones’ have done to ordinary people’s f2f conversation and the linguistic decay occurring in our languages.

    But the flip side to this is the way in which I can build a community of like minded individuals who want to open education up, to stop world hunger, poverty and create global peace (utopia as Dewey and others would suggest) – We are clearly not strong enough or big enough yet – only time will tell if ‘power’ is shared and shifts to aid the disadvantaged ‘public’ masses?

  3. John Gulliver

    MOOCs are an exciting development for sure and I for one look forward to using them. Let’s see how the business model can be resolved, as there is no such thing in the world as cost free, and professors have a living to earn just like any other person – and they have their investment in years of study and research to recover as any new student will have so to do in their turn. Also, to be fair – for the time and effort they have put in to developing their knowledge base, it’s not sensible to start accusing academics of being ‘highly paid’ as they are not, nor to say they want to keep their jobs – I mean, if you like your job, wouldn’t anybody?

  4. Sandra Ray

    There are pros and cons when there are changes to be made in any situation. Whenever I have to make a decision, I make a chart of pros and con for either side .It works for me. Maybe it would be more constructive if a group effort on that chart would produce better consequences. Sandra Ray

  5. – So many good things said here in the comments making the case for MOOCs regarding different categories of students. Don’t say it’s better in bricks and mortar for the few ones who can afford that in their life(money, geography, personality, time,…)!
    – I cannot imagine “searching” by myself in some new contemporary fields of thinking without a MOOC adjunction as a starter that gives the overview, the taste for it, and a first general mapping, although I have long been a broad-range “investigator” by profession.
    – As a student, I ran more than once from school benches, the teaching format and the forced collective side-by-side sitting. Here I can choose and invent my way. Instructors often are great at giving advice here besides.
    – Concerning blending: both as a student and as a (contractual) teacher (in regular public schools), I came twice across “teachers teaching in pairs” year-long formats…. This is the best pedagogical thing ever I can thing of: blending others’ way of teaching, experience, and competencies into yours, Socratic on stage between the two in addition for an amazing students’ benefit.

  6. Look, we can compare anything to an ideal and find it wanting. But the not very elite schools can provide really pathetic levels of “education.” Classes nearly entirely taught by TAs, papers handed back with only a grade, or never returned at all, classes especially designed for athletes, profs and TAs constantly hitting on the female students, sexist and racist remarks by profs, crackpot theories we have to learn from our prof that no one else in the world finds credible, papers graded by seniors who never took the course and who give a lower grade because we used the terms Karl Marx used in a paper on Karl Marx that the grader knows nothing about, profs that demand we never use the term “homosexual” in a course on gender and sexuality….these are the joys of the University of Arizona, Trent University, and their ilk.
    I think maybe we are better off learning from those who actually know.

  7. Irene makes a great point above. Why not ask the students, who are benefiting from these services?

    I think there needs to be some kind of distinction made loudly and publicly, hazy as it may be at times, between MOOCs and brick ‘n mortar institutions that aims to prop both up for what they are. Neither are going to go away. It is not one vs. the other. Both types of learning definitely have a place, it just took society & technology a while to discover how to make it work without such a high bar of annoyance and sluggishness.

    If the educational “quality” and communication is of such a high calibre at traditional brick ‘n mortar institutions, then let’s clearly discuss those differences, illustrate them accurately without denigrating MOOCs, and move on. If the proof is in the pudding, then those who seek to benefit from it will continue do so.

    Change is difficult and never smooth. True/big change often has a lot of collateral damage. But if one thing is certain, it’s change itself. Change WILL happen, whatever that change may be.

    MOOCs should be praised as a way for teachers to offload some of their work. The same people who bemoan increasing class sizes should be praising MOOCs and LEVERAGING them, not bitching and moaning because they gonna come take your job away. No…

    The funding issue is a separate but related issue – misguided politicians who also don’t understand MOOCs, but in a different way. They’re not fearful of MOOCs – rather, they have premature hard-ons for them. Today we get to enjoy sequestration. Not enough to go around exactly, so people in power who are also minimalist (except when it comes to their own personal needs) see fit to take away from others, i.e. teachers.

    People are communal, to a degree – we need others. None of us exists in a vacuum (although it seems to be the case more and more these days). No person could live solely off of MOOCs and live a fulfilled life. At the same time however, wouldn’t it be rather uncool to live in a world completely devoid of something like a MOOC? Where a professional or un-enrolled student had absolutely no recourse? At least MOOCs offer that. But I agree, those seeking true “higher education” would do well to be in the company of others who are already at a high level.

  8. sl kearney

    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!

  9. 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.

  10. josephkerski

    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.

  11. Elliot S. Volkman

    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.

  12. ”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.

  13. 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.

    • 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.


  14. Frank McCluskey

    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.

  15. Claudia Vandenbergh

    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 !

  16. 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.

    • Professor Plum

      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.

      • 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.

      • Meagan Ewy

        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.

      • Jacob E Mack

        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.

        • 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.