I’ve wanted to write something about the crashing and burning of Coursera’s Fundamentals of Online Education MOOC ever since it happened, but I also felt that I should do more than simply be the millionth person to note the irony of that situation. That’s kind of hard since I wasn’t enrolled in the course. However, thanks to GlobalHigherEd’s roundup of this disaster, everyone like me can read lots of posts by people who were.
So why did this particular MOOC fail? While I’ve read many explanations, the one point that keeps coming up over and over is the total lack of guidance from the superprofessor. Here’s Debbie Morrison, from a post she wrote before the MOOC got canceled:
The course started Monday, January 28, 2013 and problems began on day one when participants were instructed to ‘join a group’. As of today, Friday, February 1, the purpose of the groups is unclear, many students are still looking for a group, and if they are in one, aren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing.
This is a note from the superprofessor herself, in what appears to be a response to a direct question from a student:
The reason that I have asked you to join groups is to make the discussions more manageable and to allow you to form networks with people in your own field and even with others not in your field. The idea was to create a world wide network of people who can help each other and to start building a world wide online learning community that will provide support and help.
Getting people to form groups is, of course, easier said than done. In a face-to-face classroom, I can tell students to form groups or I can have them count off numbers and point to different parts of the room where people of each number will go. Which one is more efficient? The second, of course, which is why it’s my proven method. From what I can tell, the method to form groups here was through a Google document and the document crashed. Yet without a metaphorical traffic cop present, the group-forming process probably would have been a disaster anyways.
Despite this kind of trouble, Debbie Morrison’s first conclusion from this disaster is:
The instructional model is shifting to be student-centric, away from an institution or instructor-focused model.
In a massive, open and online course with thousands of students, the instructor must relinquish control of the student learning process. The instructor-focused model is counter intuitive to the idea of a MOOC; in the MOOC model the student directs and drives his or her learning. The pedagogy used for traditional courses is not applicable to a course on a massive scale. With the Web as the classroom platform, students learn by making connections with various ‘nodes’ of content [not all provided by the instructor] on the Web, they aggregate content, and create knowledge that is assessed not by the instructor, but by peers or self. This pedagogy builds upon the constructivist theory, and more recently a theory developed by Downes and Siemens, the connectivist learning model.
[Emphasis in original]
While that sounds beautiful in theory (for some disciplines at least), what happened in this course makes it less, not more, likely that this model will ever become the norm. Since Coursera wants to make a profit, the lesson they’ll take away from this disaster is that their MOOCs have to be more top-down, more dictatorial. Indeed, the whole point of a commercial MOOC is for the MOOC machine to run itself so that education will require less labor since that’s where the cost savings originate. As Maria Bustillos wrote last week in a widely-shared article:
MOOCs are an essentially authoritarian structure; a one-way process in which the student is a passive recipient required to do nothing except “learn.”
This is a function of their being massive. Run a MOOC this size like a commune and this is the inevitable result.
I can hear the inevitable cries of protest now: “Nobody has to run a MOOC this way!” I agree. Unfortunately, higher education operates in the real world in which edtech entrepreneurs want to make a buck by displacing faculty and administrators want to leave their mark by cutting the cost of college while simultaneously saving their own bloated salaries. Neither of these factions are going to let superprofessors run their MOOCs like a commune unless that lets them achieve their goals, and, at this stage of the revolution at least, that’s not going to happen.
Besides, higher education without direction isn’t higher education. It’s an online encounter group. While I recognize that’s actually good for some things, it doesn’t even begin to replace what most of us professors do all day.