The MOOC Honeymoon is Over: Three Takeaways from the Coursera Calamity

New year 2013The honeymoon with MOOCs is over. The reality check has finally arrived which was inevitable. MOOCs will not solve all the woes of higher education. It is unfortunate it had to be a class on how to design an online course; it was the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application [FOE] offered through Coursera that brought things to a screeching halt. But this experience can provide an opportunity for institutions to re-focus—identify the role and purpose of MOOCs and move forward with a thoughtful, purposeful strategy.

In my last post I discussed the MOOC disaster with Fundamentals of Online Education, which generated a rich dialogue on the purpose and role of MOOCs. The course was suspended on the third day due to the confusion around group work which created a significant technical glitch. In this post I’ll share three takeaways from this experience; principles that higher education institutions and educators might want to consider when offering MOOCs or online learning courses of a smaller-scale. I’m using the challenges within the FOE course to illustrate the struggles within higher education institutions as technology and economics are disrupting the model of traditional higher education and MOOCs are viewed as a panacea.

It was not technical issues that derailed this course (which was a symptom) it was the underlying philosophy that many institutions still holdthat 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 Coursera and similar platforms often appear modified to ‘fit’ into a course experience on the Web, albeit with thousands of students.

The Three Takeaways
Below I’ve outlined the key takeaways from the FOE experienceMany ideas presented here are based upon the concepts and principles of Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier, founders of the original MOOC concept.

1) 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.

This new paradigm highlights an existing tension where the control is moving away from the instructor. Below are two comments from readers that were part of the dialogue from the previous post:

“Her [referring to another educator] critique was that an individual[s] with years of experience and knowledge was reduced to a moderator and facilitator. I tend to think it is more of moving the instructor into a coach, guide and mentor role pointing the way. So I guess that argument between control and openness is at the heart of many of these tensions”. Felicia M. Sullivan

“Other than that I have always had the impression that some teachers want so much certain “desirable” features that they try to force what otherwise is spontaneous and diverse in nature, like class participation, group formation, …. That can’t be done. All we can do as teachers is encourage and motivate but if we force that will be counterproductive”. Leonel Morales

2)  Sound instructional design is the key to supporting self-directed learning experiences.
Online courses that adhere to a sound instructional design plan allow students to navigate the course as self-directed learners: access content from a variety of sources, connect with like-minded individuals, and create a learning experience and environment that fits with their objectives. The technology should be not be the focus, but should facilitate the learning. I often have stated that when one has created a sound instructional design plan, the technology becomes invisible.

Creating a solid instructional design strategy for an online course requires considerable work and planning upfront. Stephen Downes posted a presentation on his site called Facilitating a Massive Open Online Course (2012). His Slideshare gives an overview of the planning required to facilitate a MOOC, and highlights the unique strategy required when offering a course onlineit does not mimic the traditional classroom experience.

Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model
Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model: A model I use for designing online courses

My experience with developing online undergraduate courses is somewhat similar to Downes, but from a different perspective. I usually begin with an existing college course and work with faculty and course instructors to transition their face-to-face courses to the online environment. The instructional design and approach is radically different from what is used for face-to-face, and I use a formal model to guide the process, the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model which is systematic approach to developing a course. This model is based upon Robert Gagné‘s nine events of instruction, all which work towards supporting conditions for learning. This model has several phases, and one that is most relevant and necessary is the analysis of the learners (#3). It is in this step that the learning context is considered, where and how the learners will learn the skills and/or knowledge, which in this instance is on the Web. The characteristics of the learner are considered as well, which in the context of MOOCs is necessary given the diversity of learners (Dick, Carey and Carey, 2009).  

Young woman pointing with pen to laptop in library3) Prepare students for the Learning Experience.
Another theme emerged within the discussions around the FOE course, how much responsibility should the learner assume in a MOOC? Does the responsibility not fall upon the student for the success of a course? These questions were posted, and my answer is yes…however, there is an onus on the course facilitators and designers to prepare students for learning by providing some sort of orientation. The instructors need to support conditions for learning, which prepares students to learn on their own, create their own experiences, knowledge, and potentially a personalized learning community.

Preparing students includes orienting the student to the technical tools that will be used in the course, guiding them to the applications (a blog platform for instance), and providing instruction for the tools to be used as needed. This is most important for students that might be new to technical applications. What I appreciate about Downes, Siemens and Cormier is the thorough preparation and guidance offered to students at the beginning of a MOOC they facilitated, Instructions were detailed within the course home pages on How This Course Works. In addition, helpful instructional videos What is a MOOC, and Success in a MOOC, were available (Cormier, 2011). In the online program I worked with at a four-year university, we created a comprehensive orientation for all courses, that included a set of activities culminating with a quiz that reinforced technical details. This program has proved to be quite successful in reducing significantly, the number of questions by students within the first two-week period of the online course session.

Closing Thoughts
There is much to digest here, yet it is these three principles that are required to support students in massive, open and online courses. Learning has changed, the student is in the center, yet he or she still requires support and guidance upfront through an effective course design that creates a seamless user experience, and through instructors that offer guidance; supporting students in their efforts to become successful and connected lifelong learners.


Further Reading on MOOCs and thoughts about the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application course:

How NOT to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix it

I don’t usually like to title a post with negative connotations, but there is no way to put a positive spin on my experience with the MOOC I’m enrolled in through Coursera, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application. The course so far is a disaster—’a mess’ as numerous students have called it. Ironically, the learning outcome of the course is to create our own online course. To be fair, there are some good points to the course, but there are significant factors contributing to a frustrating course experience for students.

Chaos Ahead Traffic SignGroup Chaos
There are three key factors contributing to this course calamity and all link to the group assignment. The first, a ‘technical glitch’ was big enough to cause one of Google’s servers to crash. Another, causing considerable distress to students is the lack of instructions for the assignments and the group activity—there was no clarity provided on the objective or purpose of the groups. I’ll review here what went wrong, highlight students’ reactions to the problems. Though it’s too late to fix the situation now, I’ve also provided a suggestion to the course instructor, what to do for the next course to prevent a repeat of this scenario. And to help instructors or educators be more effective with their own instruction, with group activities in particular, I’ve outlined strategies and tips for the creation and facilitation of group learning activities.

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.

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 3.09.28 PM
One comment from student in a threaded discussion titled ‘This is a mess’ which was started by another student.  So far, there are over 1,000 discussion threads, many with similar sentiments.

How to Prevent Group Work from Going Haywire 
Creating and facilitating group activities in small online classes, (under forty students) can be exceptionally effective in creating meaningful learning experiences, and supportive of the social dimension, which contributes to the building of a positive and effective online learning community.  I’ve written several posts about facilitating group work, which are listed at the end of this post. In short, successful group activities in online courses need:

1) clear and detailed instructions.
2)  a thorough description of the purpose of the assignment, explaining why a group project is required over an individual activity. Highlighting how the student will benefit is a tactic that can contribute to a higher level of motivation.
3)  access to technical tools that effectively support group collaboration, i.e. a dedicated discussion venue for each group (numerous LMS platforms support dedicated group space).

What happens When Group Work Goes Haywire

1) Technical ‘Glitches’: excerpts from the course instructor’s announcements in Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.

Posted 10:33 am, January 28
Dear Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application Students,
Thank you for taking my class! With so much debate on online courses in general and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) …. I also hope that you will enjoy this class and that you will have fun.

This course will be collaborative in nature. So the first thing I would like you to do is to join a group. You will be able to do this when you access the course site. You will be able to click on the Join A Group link in the left navigation bar. This will take you to a Google Spreadsheet.…..” [The Google server could not handle the traffic – it crashed]

Posted 12:18 PM, January 28
Hi Everyone,
It has been an exciting few hours. The course has just started and some of you have managed to delete entire rows and columns in Join A Group Google spreadsheet…some of you removed people from their groups, crashed the Google server.  To fix this…. [try logging on again] and If you get a “We’re sorry. Our servers are busy. Please wait a bit and try again” message, please wait and try again. This just means there are too many people trying to access the site…. [This still did not work].

Posted  2:24 PM, January 28
I apologize for the technical glitch that did not allow you to view the Week 1 tab. This caused a lot of confusion for a lot of people. Everything is laid out in order in Week 1 tab. Here is a summary of what you need to do for each assignment [Instructions for assignments were ‘missing’].

Posted  2:48 PM, January 30
I was hoping that the Google Spreadsheet would work after a day but it looks like it will not work at all for our purposes. So I have gone to Plan B. I have created a new Group Sign Up forum. To differentiate this from the groups on the Google Spreadsheet, the group names start with Group A and continues. ……[This method did not work, now they are on Plan ‘C’. Students don’t appear to know what group they are in, with hundreds of ‘threads’ for group discussions, it’s quite mess].

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 11.30.48 AM
Numerous students appear confused (as the two comments show here). Though in fairness, it is the first week the course; students are trying to assimilate to the environment and determine expectations. This does highlight the need for instructions that are detailed and clear. Some instructors have found using a video or audio clip to explain an assignment helpful for students.

2) Lack of Clear Instructions and Guidelines: Instructions for the group work in this  course are vague. It is not clear what the groups are for, or why one needs to join a group. This was not explained anywhere in the course description or instructional video, only instructions of how to join a group.  All of this further confuses the technical issue, begging the question ‘why are we dong this’?

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 11.31.21 AM
A student question about the group work which is representative of many other student comments.

My guess is that the instructor is trying to manage the discussion format by providing a more intimate framework to discuss the questions for the given topic of the week. Below is a suggestion for the course instructor of the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application. For the next course, I suggest the following strategy for the group work:

[Recommended] Instructions for this Discussion Assignment: There are three discussion questions for this week. They are 1) …   2) … 3) …  To gain a deeper understanding and perspective on the topic, I recommend you participate in a discussion with several of your peers. Given the large group, we suggest students form smaller groups, [suggested maximum is twenty students per group] which will provide a more intimate and meaningful dialogue. You may use a platform of your choice, Google +, Facebook, Skype etc. [From my limited experience as a participant in MOOCs, some students form small groups spontaneously, without prompting].

Alternatively, you may choose not to join a small group in which case you can participate in the class discussion board dedicated to week one questions that is open to all participants. Since the discussion is open to the entire class, it will be impossible to read all of the responses. I suggest you post your response and engage with one or two students during the week by replying to students that respond to your post, and respond to those that engage with your initial post. This method can provide a focused and meaningful way to gain a different perspective on the topics of the week.

Closing Thoughts
Group work can provide meaningful learning, in the right context with the support of a sound instructional strategy. The example here from the class, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application demonstrates why a sound strategy is needed, and what happens when one is lacking. MOOCs require a unique instructional strategy, one that is different from small online courses. What exactly the strategy to follow is under discussion. It is through the courses, such as this one that institutions can learn what works and does not. I give the instructor credit for trying something new, and investing her time and energy, which I can appreciate.

I will be sticking with this course, though I’m not submitting assignments, but I’ll be using the examples, tools provided and experience to hone my own instructional design skills.

Note: I’m also enrolled in Coursera’s E-learning and Digital Cultures, with University of Edinburgh, which is so far excellent.  What I wrote in this post is exclusive to the course Fundamentals  of Online Education: Planning and ApplicationI also completed Introduction to Sociology, through Coursera last year which was quite good.

Sunday, February 3, 2013, 12:23 PM PST:  Apparently after the notice yesterday of suspending the course, Coursera has decided to re-open the class:
“Dear FOE students,
We were inspired to see the number of people who expressed an interest in seeing the class resume. There were some choices made in the initial design of the class that didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped. We are working to address these issues, and are reopening the discussion forums so that we can get feedback on how the class can be improved when it relaunches.Thank you for your patience as we work to provide you with a great learning experience in the next version.

Saturday, February 2, 2013, 4:17 PM PST:  “We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.”

Further Reading on Group Learning Activities in the Online Environment

Follow-up Post: The MOOC Honeymoon is Over: Three Takeaways from the Coursera Calamity, Online Learning Insights

MOOC Development Advice from Instructors that Have-Been-There-Done-That, Online Learning Insights