Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Online Education, #foemooc, and #moocmeltdown

The response to the surprisingly swift implosion--and shutdown--of Coursera's Fundamentals of Online Education in the higher ed community has been interesting to observe, particularly because I was a student in the course.  Much of what is being reported is true (Slate; Chronicle of Higher Ed; Inside Higher Ed; Washington Post + comments to each of these): the course was very obviously not up to the quality of most other MOOCs on the Coursera menu.  It was chaotic from the start.  My first contact with the instructor was an email informing me that there were problems: no welcome to the class, no effort to orient me to the experience to come. Things only got worse over the course of the week before, suddenly, we were informed that it was being suspended indefinitely.  As I wrote in an earlier post, I was surprised by the decision to pull the course rather than use the negative feedback as an opportunity to problem solve.  I suspect that the instructor was completely blindsided by the whole situation, including some rather harsh personal attacks on the discussion board, and felt too overwhelmed to innovate while the class was in session.  Certainly, one need only go to Twitter (e.g. #foemooc) to find plenty of criticism.

The decision to use Google Docs for students to organize themselves into groups at the very start of the semester) was shockingly naive.  Google docs are great for small classes; they are fine for large enrollment courses like mine, with 400 students.  They are useless in a course with 41,000 students (because only 50 people can be editing the doc at one time).  In the aftermath of the Google Docs disaster, Coursera is doing damage control and blaming the negative feedback from users entirely on the fact that the Google Docs feature wasn't properly tested beforehand.  To excerpt from the Inside Higher Education article: According to Richard A. DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities, there wasn't enough time to test the features for group discussions.  Asked if such testing should have taken place, DeMillo said that it was important to put the issue in perspective. "In a bricks and mortar course, it would have taken months to identify and make changes." DeMillo said it was important to let instructors experiment. "If we tell people to just do safe things, we'll stifle innovation," he said.  So, basically, it's ok to do shoddy work and try to pass off a half-baked course on 41,000 students if you are, by someone's definition, being innovative.  Andrew Ng seems to endorse this when, in the same article, he refers to the Google Docs discussion plan as "really innovative."  Uh, ok.

But let's be clear here.  This course didn't implode simply because of one bad (and, apparently, completely untested) decision.  It imploded because it was badly designed course.  It imploded because the instructor, Dr. Fatima Wirth, seemed not to understand some basic principles for teaching a large number of students.  The fact that there were 41, 000 students in this particular class meant that every small problem very quickly became a big one.  But I want to be clear that all of the issues that emerged with this course had very little to do with online education or the usefulness (or quality) of MOOCs.  The course imploded because it was badly designed for its audience.  It was poorly organized; it paid no heed to the need to orient students to the learning environment; it was difficult to figure out what to do; and the pre-recorded lectures were not well done.  It would have been just as disastrous if she had tried to use the same design and same learning tools (like the uninspired, pre-recorded lectures) on my group of 400 students in a face to face classroom.

Most obviously, Dr. Wirth appeared to lack a clear understanding of who her audience was likely to be, or why they would be enrolled in her course.  She had no sense of the effect that scale would have on a course that was clearly designed for a much smaller, North American audience with access to fast and reliable broadband.  The course design didn't seem to allow for the more casual auditor who wanted to lurk in the back row (as I wanted to do since I am knee-deep in a very hectic semester and don't have 7-10 free hours/week to devote to another activity).  In teaching a large class, whether 400 or 40,000 students, it is crucial to know your students, to understand where they are coming from and what expectations they have.  A big advantage that instructors of large classes have is the simple fact that, the larger the class, the easier it is to look around at similar classes and get a general sense of your own audience.  

For instance, even if I don't know my individual students all that well in a 400 student class, I can describe many of their characteristics (non-classics majors; pretty evenly distributed from freshmen to senior; about 20% are highly motivated while 60% are intelligent and might get interested in the course content but struggle to manage their time without a lot of help; another 20% really are just there to check off a box on their graduation requirements).  This semester, I worked with two learning and assessment specialists from our Center for Teaching and Learning to develop a survey instrument that gathered information from my students about their background, other commitments (like paid work), reasons for taking the course, and expectations. With 41, 000 students, it is even easier to get an understanding of the different kinds of students.  Surely Coursera is working to create abstract student profiles for their different courses, so that instructors can have an even better sense of their audience and how to best meet the needs of such a diverse community of learners?

The other striking absence from Dr. Wirth's course was an effort to orient students to the learning environment: no welcome to the class message; no clear instructions of what to do or how to do it (though, certainly, some students did figure all of this out on their own and were able to complete the first week's assignment without much hassle).  Whether teaching face to face or online, orientation and organization are crucial.  For the first several weeks of a large class, when students are doing every part of the course for the first time, it is necessary to provide as much modeling and guidance as possible.  Sure, some students will run ahead and figure things out for themselves.  But many won't, and those will be the dissatisfied students posting negative feedback on the discussion board or tweeting about their frustrations.  They will also be the students who fill up your inbox and end up costing hours more time than would have been spent creating a detailed "course map" with clear instructions in the first place.  I am very comfortable in an online environment yet, when I went to the course site, I had trouble figuring out what I was supposed to do or why I was supposed to do it.  Was I supposed to watch the videos and then do the readings?  What was I supposed to focus on in the readings?  I didn't really want to get involved in a group discussion, but would it be ok to post thoughts on the course discussion board?  At one point, I asked to be assigned to a group but never heard back.  Ultimately, I felt very disoriented--and I wasn't even that invested in the course.

Teaching large groups of students, regardless of the environment, also requires the instructor to develop a thick skin.  It is important not to close our ears to criticism--that's how we improve our course design and teaching.  At the same time, much of the grumbling will be unfair or uninformed.  It might even be unnecessarily personal and overly aggressive.  But it *will* happen.  We cannot make everyone happy and, in this day and age when everyone gets to play the critic via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, various "rate your doctor" sites, etc., we are going to hear about every little dissatisfaction.  This will especially be true when running a course for the first time (because, without a doubt, it *will* have elements that can be improved).  So it goes. For this reason, instructors have to learn how to sort through the useful feedback and ignore the rest.  This was a really tough lesson for me.  I have the sense that the initial, very negative reaction from some of the course participants led to the halt of the FOE course.  In effect, this gave those voices too much power.  There were many others, including me, who recognized that the initial chaos wasn't terribly unusual for the "getting organized" part of a class.  But we figured that, once the kinks got worked out, the rest would flow relatively smoothly and we'd learn a lot.  Hopefully the course will resume shortly; but it's unfortunate that it was taken offline at all--especially since, in real life, we just have to problem solve on our feet as best we can.

One final point: the pre-recorded videos.  These are the cornerstone of MOOCs (and certainly will play an important role in other kinds of online courses).  They are also, increasingly, being used in face to face classes, as a way to free up some class time for student engagement/peer discussion (i.e. hybrid or blended learning).  There isn't yet a "best practices" guide for producing these videos, and it will certainly vary from discipline to discipline.  At the same time, the videos need to be thoughtfully done, engaging, and useful.  They can't simply be a narration of bullet points on a PPT slide.  Students will quickly grow bored and stop watching them.  Or will speed through them and merely write down the info on the slides without listening to the commentary.  Att this stage, online courses of all sorts--including MOOCs--should probably also be thinking about ways to improve the content delivery via video (it gets boring to see the same person talking to you for 1-2 hours, even if the individual videos are shorter) and visuals.  It might also make sense to start investing time in developing other forms of content delivery (i.e. modules in a LMS like Canvas).

I hope FOE makes it back online.  I suspect that I can learn a lot from it.  I also hope that Dr. Wirth and her team are addressing the larger design flaws of the course and not simply focusing on the Google Docs fiasco.  This course imploded because it was badly designed.  It would have created chaos in any group larger than about 50 students.  Its implosion is not a sign that MOOCs are dead (or should be dead) or that online education doesn't work.  It's a sign that students are picky customers and they aren't going to tolerate a badly designed product from us instructors.  This is as true at a brick and mortar university as it is online.


  1. Well said!
    I agree with what is written here and wanted the course to continue but have since been concerned about someone teaching the fundamentals of online education that may not really have a basic understanding of the need for interactivity and is teaching us the fundamentals using inappropriate technology and a talking head style....

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