October 26, 2014

When MOOCs crash and burn

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Jaschick, S. (2013) MOOC Mess, Inside Higher Education, February 4

Krause, S. (2013) Two Thoughts on the crash of the “Fundamentals of Online Education” MOOC Stevendkrause.com, February 4

Strauss, V. (2013) How online class about online learning failed miserably Washington Post, February 5

Well, it had to happen. You all probably know the story of the course on how to plan and manage online courses that wasn’t planned or managed. After two weeks, with 40,000 students online, this course from an instructor at the Georgia Institute of Technology really crashed and burned. The tool selected for group-work couldn’t handle the numbers, the faculty member was overwhelmed, so cancelled the course with barely an explanation.

Now I do feel sympathy not only with the students, but also with the instructor. I’ve made mistakes on my first online courses, but here are some questions that someone should be asking:

  1. Where is the quality control? Surely Coursera should accept some responsibility for this. They are getting paid by the institutions to host these courses. Shouldn’t they at least be asking some questions about what tools people are planning to use, and whether or not they will work with very large numbers? Are they doing due diligence before accepting and advertising their MOOCs? Apparently not. Nor did Georgia Institute of Technology. What has this done to its reputation?
  2. Are questions being asked about the qualifications or experience of the people who are offering MOOCs? Just a brief glance at this particular course suggests that the instrutor had little experience herself in planning and managing online courses. Georgia Institute of Technology is not at the top of my list of institutions with experience in online learning. But then, anyone can teach an online course about online learning, can’t they?

What really makes me angry is that badly designed MOOCs do such damage, both to their students and to the image of online learning. You just cannot go on ignoring best practice and hope to get away with it, especially with 40,000 students in the class.

Again, this is a classic example of the clash between computer scientists and educators. If you are trying out an app and it fails, no big deal, you’ve lost a bit of money – try another one. But in education you are playing with people’s hopes and dreams. Do the job properly.

Comments

  1. I was enrolled in this course and I think it was clear from the start that it was in trouble. At least part of the problem to my mind was the complexity of the design and the instructors presumption of technology competencies that many of those enrolled didn’t have. Students had to sign up for groups on a Google doc, for instance- which between being deleted by students unfamiliar with how Gdocs work, crashing because of excessive demand, and other reasons- created a massive fail in the first few days. Instructions were not especially clear and naturally, because a handful of people were ‘teaching’ tens of thousands of students, help wasn’t quickly forthcoming.

    This course probably did everyone a favor by demonstrating the limits of teaching via MOOC. The instructors assumed that they could emulate their habitual models of pedagogy on a massive scale. MOOCs that have worked well for me as a student in the past via coursera have very toned-down participation and interaction- discussion boards that may or may not be ‘graded’, regular quizzes, peer-graded short evaluations, and online lectures delivered regularly. You don’t get what you could get in a traditional classroom or even a small-scale institutional online course, but you get something. The tradeoffs between access and quality are not going to be resolved anytime soon.

    • Many thanks for this, Richard – great to hear it from a learner’s perspective.
      Your identification of the critical features for success in MOOCs is particularly helpful and astute. Each medium requires its own format, and MOOCs are different from both classroom and credit online teaching, not only in their purpose and target groups, but also in their successful design features.
      I think there will be more innovation within MOOCs as more critical design features, such as a way of handling peer interaction on a large scale, become experimented with and developed. But you don’t want to be in a MOOC where they get such innovation really wrong!

  2. MOOC is a new world for me. I wasn’t aware that you could have 40,000 students in an on-line class. I can’t imagine how a professor would manage grading the large amount of work he or she would receive, let alone the technology to support it. I’m manage implementation of HR software programs and we definitely ask questions regarding the capacity of the software, hosting capabilities, etc. I’m not sure if these questions were asked in this particular case; however, if they were, then something went very wrong. Being able to quickly recover systems and data after the crash and a good (politically correct) explanation would go a long way with students taking the course. And an adjustment in class schedule or assignment due dates.

    • Emerson David says:

      Dear Readers,

      I am one of those who had registered for the “Fundamentals of Online Education.” I was more interested in viewing the course content and impressed by the opening notes and the introduction of Educational theories. However, I wondered how the interaction between the instructor and students would go. To my surprise, it crashed. I do agree with Tony Bates. There must be a balance between Education and Technology. MOOCs do not fit into Online Teaching pedagogical parameter. Give below the email I received from the institution. I do empathize with the institution.

      Dear Emerson David,

      We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.

      Yours,
      Fatimah

      • I would recommend you undertake “Designing New Learning Environments” from Stanford via Venture Lab. I recruited 8 teachers with me to complete the course and project. It was a great experience. Our project initiated a new blended community of practice.

  3. Currently it is my first time on MOOC and the one I am enrolled in is in my view very well managed and presented. But, the problem is on my side as a learner when trying to attend live discussion forums and of course with time differences it is even worse for me. Fortunately I could go back and listen to them. I do not know how many students are enrolled but I think it is well managed and coordinated. With reference to the 4200 students in discussion! I wonder whether there can be some limitation or cut off number in the number of students enrolled for the course.

  4. Tony, I’ve been also a victim of the unfortunate course. Below is a link to my blog post on my experience with this course and one from Duke University. A paradoxical course.

    “Failure to Launch: An unfortunate experience with two MOOCs”
    http://eductechalogy.org/index/archives/329

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