A class is not a commune.

5 02 2013

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.

[emphasis added]

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.



12 responses

5 02 2013
The MOOC Honeymoon is Over: Three Takeaways from the Coursera Calamity | online learning insights

[…] A Class is Not a Commune, Blog: More or Less Bunk […]

5 02 2013

If MOOCs are good teaching, then blogs should count as scholarship, right?

MOOCs are the subprime loans of today: a lot of hype and earnest hope that one can get something of value for nothing.

5 02 2013
Music for Deckchairs

All of these are good points, and we’ve come a long way since we disagreed on online education, but I can’t entirely support your anti-corporatist take here. This is because I’m becoming really uneasy at the way the individual educator at the heart of this is getting talked about/over.

We’ve all been there. But what makes this different isn’t just the scale of her exposure, it’s that neither Coursera nor her employer have shown a scintilla of support for her. This is simply appalling on their part. They’re both eager to be the name on the shingle when it all goes well, but when it fails, she’s on her own. None of us know how come she ended up in this situation, how much choice or workplace resources she had to do this.

But what she does have is global professional colleagues, and I feel strongly that if this was the person in the office next door, we’d be showing quite a bit more solidarity.

5 02 2013
Jonathan Rees


Point well taken. Nevertheless, I do think your point is the beginning of a whole different conversation.

I will never fault a superprofessor for putting on the best MOOC that they can, and in this stage of the experiment I won’t fault a superprofessor for aiming high and missing. I think whether this extends to actual sympathy or solidarity on my part depends upon their payment schedule. Readers here know from Jeremy Adelman that he didn’t/doesn’t take a dime for teaching his MOOC. Is that true of every superprofessor? If I had to guess, I’d say it probably depends upon their home institution.

What I CAN tell you is that Coursera should be more open about this, just like they should be more open about a lot of things about their business model (such as the failure rates of individual courses). After all, how can we learn from the MOOC “experiment” if all the evidence is treated like a trade secret?

5 02 2013
5 02 2013

I had to laugh at your point about asking students to form groups in face to face teaching. The blank stares! The physical inertia! I too use the counting off method – or, when there are rows, the ‘every other row turn around and talk to the person you’re now facing’ method. Not only can you not be too specific about the process, but it also really helps to motivate the groups first by telling them very specifically what their agenda is going to be once the groups have formed. If this is a logistical challenge with classes of 40-90, as I typically have, we can hardly be surprised that even something as conceptually simple as this takes a great deal of care and advance planning with groups in the thousands. While I agree that Coursera should be providing a lot of support for instructors for this scaling up, and certainly should be not hiding behind the curtain at the moment of failure, at the same time I worry that this is exactly where we risk losing control of these “massified” classes: once they are, logistically, beyond the means of a professor (even a “superprofessor”) to manage, then don’t we start ceding pedagogical territory to the corporate managers? Once there’s a “Coursera way” of doing things, even the most super of professors will face a lot of pressure to conform to it. A lot of us have a small-scale experience of this with programs like Blackboard.

6 02 2013
Contingent Cassandra

Good assessment. Although I wasn’t in this MOOC, either, I’d say, based on my reading, that the problems that occurred (even with a proportion of who were experienced online learners/teachers) point to the amount of invisible labor done by teachers, even (perhaps especially) in “student-centered” classes. I spent quite a few hours last week reading my online students’ self-introductions and placing them in groups (based on discipline, which sounds easy, except everybody seems to have 3 majors and six minors these days, and then there are questions of number balance, and so on. . . .). This week, I’m monitoring the results of a fairly controlled exercise: each student needs to go find a scholarly, peer-reviewed published article reporting on original research in their discipline. Even with a list of peer-reviewed articles published by professors at our institution (and organized by department) available to them, a significant minority of students are having trouble finding such an article, and/or are managing to come up with something else (a review of the literature, which is understandable, a press release about the results of a published research, a blog post, etc. ) Since they really will need exactly the kind of article I described to go on to the next step (and since they aren’t entirely reliable in checking each others’ articles, though I’m having them do that), I have to monitor the process, and chime in just enough to keep them on track, but not so much that they just start waiting for me to come up with the right answer, rather than endeavoring to do the work themselves. It’s good pedagogy (“inquiry-based learning” would be one buzzword to describe the project this search initiates), but it’s time consuming, even with just under 50 students in two sections (plus a similar number in two traditional sections of the same course). Although I provide much more specific instructions than it sounds like the MOOC instructor did (and yes, that failing is as much the fault of whoever was helping her build the MOOC as of the instructor herself), what I’m doing is still not scalable *unless* I had a TA for every 30 students or so, *and* time to train and supervise those TAs. In short, even “student/inquiry-centered instruction requires the presence of an instructor to keep things on track. In fact, the more one allows students to discover questions, materials, etc. for themselves, the more they need somebody to shepherd them through the process, answer questions that arise, and pose questions that students don’t even realize need to be asked. That can be done online, but the teacher:student ratio still matters — a lot.

7 02 2013
Music for Deckchairs


I’m in complete agreement with this, having just finished delivering a fairly intensive online course in which I used the same processes with a group of 30 students. It’s intensive and effective.

But the ethos that epic scalability is producing is that this kind of work is an inefficiency of some kind, or that it can be done just as well by anyone and everyone within the group of learners. I’m not sure the students I’ve been working with would agree.

As it happens I’m a believer in the philosophy of ceding authority, but it’s not authority that’s at issue here. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have been able to bring the skills I now have to the task of supporting learners through this self-directed process. That’s not authority, it’s experience, and I don’t think it’s even honest to pretend that I don’t have it.

I really appreciated reading about your approach, as I think this whole debate is clouded by our fascination with scale, not detail.


9 02 2013
Weekend Reading « Backslash Scott Thoughts

[…] A Class is Not a Commune. […]

22 02 2013

I was in the course, and the instructor appeared to have one local TA from Georgia Tech helping her. I saw no mention of any support from anyone at Coursera, although of course, she may have getting some that wasn’t mentioned.

If she was getting support from Coursera, then the people at Coursera appear to be clueless. If she wasn’t, what on earth is Coursera expecting to get in terms of free staff time from universities? Insane – build your business model around other organisations giving you lots of staff time for nothing, and then wait for your labour supplier to go bankrupt.

Once I realised the course was just the lone instructor and one TA, I knew it was in trouble. I dropped out within the first couple of days.

22 02 2013
What if superprofessors aren’t really all that super? | More or Less Bunk

[…] professors at “A” institutions deserve to be treated differently? With two Coursera trainwrecks under our belts now, it seems pretty darned obvious that those two superprofessors at least were […]

23 04 2013
Like automating your wedding or the birth of your first child. | More or Less Bunk

[…] I’ve explained before, a class is not a commune.  Professorial authority is the glue that holds the whole educational […]

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