What Happens When a MOOC Prof Leaves Mid-Course?

If the first scandal marks a paradigm as having "arrived," then massive online open courses can claim the distinction. The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that for the first time in the history of MOOCs, one has lost a professor in the middle of a course — all because of a dispute over how the course might best be taught.

Richard A. McKenzie, who was the instructor for "Microeconomics for Managers" course offered on the Coursera platform by the University of California at Irvine, emailed his students prior to the 5th week of the class to tell them that he was leaving. In his note, McKenzie explained that his decision was prompted by "a disagreement over how to best conduct this course."

This has not been a good month for Coursera, according to The Chronicle's Steve Kolowich. Earlier this month, another course called "Fundamentals of Online Education" had to be canceled when it experienced technical difficulties that made teaching it impossible. In contrast, the course McKenzie leaves behind will continue to completion, but another instructor will be found to oversee it.

Daphne Koller, one of Coursera's founders, said by e-mail that Mr. McKenzie had not been "removed" from his role and that Coursera officials had not been in contact with the professor in recent weeks—suggesting that whatever "disagreements" led to Mr. McKenzie's resignation had occurred at Irvine. Gary Matkin, the dean for distance education at Irvine, said the problem had stemmed from Mr. McKenzie's reluctance to loosen his grip on students who he thought were not learning well in the course.

In an emailed statement, Matkin said that McKenzie believed that students who were not serious about the content they posted in the course's discussion forums were preventing others from learning successfully. This view contradicted that of Irvine officials who believed that that kind of distraction presented no harm to those who were genuinely looking to learn.

The possible root of the conflict was the different attitude required to oversee a regular university course and a typical MOOC. The audience for MOOCs is much wider, and even among those who choose to participate fully – roughly 2% of the 37,000 who enrolled, according to McKenzie – fewer still will apply themselves as well as a typical college student enrolled in a traditional university class.

The professor apparently had faced criticism from students who objected to his decision to assign a textbook that was not available free. Mr. McKenzie also had heard complaints about how much work he assigned.

"I will not give on standards," wrote Mr. McKenzie in one post, "and you also should not want me to, or else the value of any ‘certification' won't be worth the digits it is written with."

02 19, 2013
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