Online Class on How To Teach Online Classes Goes Laughably Awry

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 5 2013 7:05 PM

Online Class on How To Teach Online Classes Goes Laughably Awry

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Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng accepts the award for Best New Startup of 2012 at the 6th Annual Crunchies Awards on Jan. 31 in San Francisco.

Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for The Crunchies

In the span of a week, an online course on how to teach online courses turned into a master class in how not to.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

A class called "Fundamentals of Online Learning: Planning and Application," taught by Fatima Wirth of Georgia Tech, launched on the online higher-education platform Coursera on Jan. 28 with some 40,000 students signed up. Within days, many of those students—including some who are educators themselves—were taking to Twitter and blogs to complain that the class was unraveling. On Feb. 2, Wirth wrote students to notify them that she was suspending the class "in order to make improvements."

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One of the best accounts comes from Jill Barshay of the Hechinger Report, who was among the unlucky pupils:

Within hours, things were going awry. Neither the “Getting Started” tab nor the “syllabus” tab offered much direction on how to begin the class. I wasted an hour taking surveys on my personal learning style. (One said I was a visual learner. The other said I wasn’t).
The biggest problem was breaking our class of more than 41,000 students into discussion groups. Dr. Wirth asked us to sign up using a Google spreadsheet. The only problem was Google’s own support pages clearly state that only 50 people can edit and view a document simultaneously. I was one of the thousands who kept clicking, but was locked out. When I finally got in, it was a mess. Classmates had erased names, substituted their own and added oodles of blank spaces. ...
In the meantime, the video lectures were mind-numbing laundry lists of PowerPoint bullet points. A survey of educational philosophies left me no more enlightened than before I watched it. The readings were a bit better. One of my favorites, Teaching with Technology: Tools and Strategies to Improve Student Learning, linked to a hilarious PowerPoint comedy sketch about the stupidity of reading PowerPoint bullet points. ...

Many others echoed Barshay's complaints. On her blog Online Learning Insights, Debbie Morrison called the course a "calamity," adding:

It was not technical issues that derailed this course [which was a symptom], it is the underlying philosophy that many institutions still hold ontothat a MOOC is similar to, or the same as, a course in a traditional face-to-face classroom, and it can be successful using the same structure, same content and similar instructional methods. MOOC courses offered through Cousera and other such platforms, often appear modified to ‘fit’ into a course experience on the Web, albeit with thousands of students.

In other words, Morrison concludes, "The honeymoon with MOOCs is over." A Twitter hashtag for the course, #foemooc, stands as a testament to the wreckage. (A MOOC, for those fortunate enough to have avoided the acronym until now, is short for a "massive open online course." In the past few years, numerous companies and organizations have begun offering these free, not-for-credit online classes, but Coursera's aggressive growth has made it the standard-bearer for the movement.)

The failure of a Coursera course about Coursera courses is clearly an embarrassment for company and concept alike. Critics are already sniping that, when it comes to free online education, you get what you pay for. But that's not quite fair: Coursera and its kin have offered hundreds of other courses that went off just fine. One reason that this class's failure has resonated so widely—aside from the obvious irony—may be that we're in the early stages of a backlash to the MOOC craze that swept the higher-education world over the past year. Top universities have been leaping on board left and right to avoid being left behind as the bandwagon pulls away, and it's no wonder that some skeptics want to throw the brakes before the free-classes trend careens out of control. 

That scrutiny is good and necessary. That said, it would be absurd to conclude from one class's failure that the whole experiment is a bust. Of course some free classes are going to turn out poorly. Others will have value that belies their pricetag, especially if they can learn from Wirth's mistakes and recognize the limitations of the platform. As I've argued before, none will replace a genuine college education anytime soon—nor, it seems, a genuine education in how online education ought to be done.

UPDATE, Feb. 6, 2:15 p.m.: Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng told me in an email that he views the course "not as a failure, but rather as an opportunity to learn and improve things the next time around." He said that this was the first time since Coursera's official launch in April 2012 that one of its courses has been suspended after it began. And he noted that the Fundamentals of Online Education course may be revived once the kinks are worked out. More from Ng:

We believe strongly in giving our university partners the ability to experiment with online education, and we encourage them to think outside the box when approaching online course development. Unfortunately this particular experiment did not go as planned, and out of respect for our students' time and effort, Coursera and Georgia Tech collaboratively determined that the best way to serve our students would be to close the class until the issues are resolved and we can offer a great experience. Moving forward, we will work with professors and universities to guarantee that all parties have a sufficient amount of time to review course material and design before a course’s start date. This will ensure that we have time to flag and address any issues and concerns before a course begins.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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