Oops! Online Course About Teaching Online Goes Haywire

As Coursera expands its Massive Open Online Course offerings, an embarrassingly public glitch has exposed some of the format’s weaknesses. As blogger Ki Mae Heussner of GigaOM explains, reports of the problem quickly spread over social networks because the course itself was about how to teach online. “Fundamentals of Online Learning” began on January 28; [...]

As Coursera expands its Massive Open Online Course offerings, an embarrassingly public glitch has exposed some of the format’s weaknesses. As blogger Ki Mae Heussner of GigaOM explains, reports of the problem quickly spread over social networks because the course itself was about how to teach online.

“Fundamentals of Online Learning” began on January 28; it was taught as a collaboration with Georgia Tech professor Fatimah Wirth. Wirth, who has designed and supported online classes at Georgia Tech, did not anticipate a technical difficulty that came with truly massive registration. As a first step, she asked students to form discussion groups of twenty.

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.

Google docs can’t be used by more than 50 people at once, and Wirth’s course registration was around 40,000. A technical platform could have been built to allow that many people to form discussion groups, but Wirth was trying to teach using existing online tools. Coursera’s website does not have such capability built into it, and the online company did not seem aware of Wirth’s goals or problems that might occur. When formation of discussion groups proved to be impossible, the instructor did not have a back-up plan to fill in the gap. As she moved forward with lecture plans, students took to social media to complain and mock.

The course’s registered students included many other instructors and online experts. They blogged and tweeted, calling the course a disaster and worse. Once a Twitter hashtag for mocking “Fundamentals of Online Learning” existed, the instructor realized that the course was not working. Coursera and Georgia Tech put the course on hold at the end of the week:

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.

One blogging student, Debbie Morrison at Online Learning Insights (https://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/how-not-to-design-a-mooc-the-disaster-at-coursera-and-how-to-fix-it/), suggested that Wirth would have been better off leaving it up to students how to manage discussion:

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.

Letting students choose how to organize keeps the instructor from needing to solve the problem. Morrison and others point out that online learning is like classroom learning, but it isn’t the same, and an instructor who assumes that it’s the same will end up making mistakes like this. In a classroom, nothing happens until the teacher tells students what to do. In an online format, students have many ways of coming up with their own ideas, sometimes without the instructor having any idea that they’re doing it. Learning is driven by student interest, not teacher demands.

Coursera’s founder Andrew Ng has announced that in future, collaborating partners like Georgia Tech will need to post detailed on their website a full month before a course opens. This will give Coursera technicians a chance to troubleshoot and make sure they will be able to give adequate technical support.

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