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A MOOC misstep

The University can learn from the failure of a recently axed massive open online course

The word falling constantly from the lips of higher-education experts, techies and digital-media junkies is a nonsensical-sounding acronym: MOOC. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have devoured an astonishing amount of attention in the higher-education world since online-learning company Coursera launched in April 2012.

Correspondence courses are nothing new. What distinguishes MOOCs from past distance-learning efforts is as the name suggests: the courses are large-scale, hosted online, and instructors impose no barriers to enrollment—financial or otherwise.

Past online-learning efforts have remained small-scale or fizzled out. The University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, for example, has quietly hosted degree and certificate programs online for years.

But entrepreneurial boldness, not restraint, has defined the online-education movement’s current chapter. Stanford fired the starting gun in fall 2011 with an artificial-intelligence course that more than 100,000 students signed up for. Since, three educational technology firms — Coursera, edX and Udacity — have emerged as the major MOOC players. Coursera partners with 33 colleges and universities to offer free online courses. Last July the University became one of those partners.

The MOOC has enjoyed a meteoric rise. Its popularity ballooned rapidly: Coursera hit 1 million users in August 2012, less than four months after it launched. The MOOC has also drawn unusual hype. Some herald online learning as a revolution that will upend — and democratize — the higher-education landscape.

During the weekend, however, the MOOC displayed some growing pains. Coursera was forced to suspend a course after students complained about technical glitches and confusing instructions. The name of the course? “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.” The class cancellation marked a meta-MOOC mess.

The course may have been doomed from the start. One might question whether online education, currently in its infancy, has identifiable “fundamentals” particular to its platform. Qualities necessary for good teaching — including passion for and knowledge of the subject matter, responsiveness to student needs and so on — are not distinctive to online instruction.

Fundamentals aside, when it came to “planning and application” the course failed on both counts.

The trouble started when the instructor, Fatimah Wirth of Georgia Tech, asked her students to divide into groups using Google documents. This simple task grows complicated when you have 41,000 students. Multiple authors began to delete rows and columns, erasing information other students posted. Wirth quickly had an online mutiny on her hands.

Videos she sent the class in an attempt to clarify her instructions engendered more confusion. Though the course description promised students would learn “online learning pedagogy, online course design … online assessments, managing an online class, [and] web tools” Wirth lacked the online infrastructure support her own digital course, and Coursera moved to cancel the class. It had been in session one week.

More than 230,000 students have signed up for the University’s MOOCs, the first of which launched in January. Four more courses are set to begin later in the spring. University officials — including University President Teresa Sullivan — have repeatedly described the school’s foray into large-scale online education as an “experiment.” Part of experimentation is learning from error. And there are a few lessons the University can take from the weekend’s MOOC mishap as it proceeds in its online efforts.

First is the necessity of ensuring instructors have the technical infrastructure they require to manage courses successfully. Technical glitches that might be easily solved in a 25-person classroom become amplified in an online classroom of 40,000. The University should supply professors who elect to teach MOOCs with ample technical support.

Second, professors must issue instructions that are as clear as possible. In an online atmosphere confusion is chaos. Errors can multiply on discussion forums as students who misunderstand course requirements spread incorrect information.

Finally, professors and administrators alike should remember that to teach a MOOC is to perform for an enormous audience. A lecture that goes wrong may disadvantage a few hundred students, tops. A MOOC that crashes and burns does so in front of thousands. Online blunders can jeopardize the professor’s reputation and reflect poorly on the institution. Experimentation may be the backbone of academic progress, but even the most promising experiments can go awry.