cancellation “temporary suspension” of Coursera’s Fundamentals of Online Education course is a watershed moment in the rapidly growing world of MOOCs. Inside Higher Ed has summarized the problems which befell the course and led to suspension, and a number of course participants have documented their experiences, displeasure and ideas for potential fixes (Debbie Morrison’s experience, chronicled on her blog Online Learning Insights, was the first on the scene, and subsequent artifacts continue to arrive, such as the #foemooc Twitter feed). There are many questions on a structural level, such as why a course with an enrollment of 40K would utilize a service such as Google Documents, which limits docs to 50 simultaneous users. These are the questions most likely to be asked and answered in the dominant narrative… when if Coursera discusses it in the media or on their site (as of publication, Coursera had no notice or explanation of the suspension on their page; rather, the course is listed as upcoming), they will likely focus on the structural shortcomings and their structural fixes. There are other considerations and potential questions to put in the forum as well:
1) The partnership between the California State University system (San Jose State University to be specific) and MOOC provider Udacity allows a credit-based output for MOOC enrollment. This is despite a lack of accreditation for Udacity, a for-profit enterprise producing curricular materials. One could say it is the responsibility of the scholastic institution to assure quality control, and that would be true in conventional academia…but the narrative in society is not about San Jose State University doing great things in their utilization of a resource such as Udacity, but instead about Udacity changing education as we know it, and that change is implied as for the better. The narrative is about disrupting traditional academia, implying that traditional academia needs disruption, and the MOOC is (in the words of many, see here and here) the system to at least reconstitute higher ed, and at most displace it. However, such an embarrassment as having to cancel a course (and the irony of that course being on the fundamentals of online education is not lost on anyone) because its structure could not withstand its intention (active student use) weighs not only on the rigor of MOOCs, but also on their output. Education theorists have debated whether MOOCs can provide learning outcomes, but have assumed the validity of the structure as a given in that debate. If the center cannot hold, how can this model be reliable to the point of collegiate credit?
2) Contemporary education debate spends a lot of energy forecasting blame for inefficiencies. Do we blame the teachers, the policies, the testing, the culture…where does the buck stop? One of the interesting aspects of MOOCs on the xMOOC level is their symmetry with the industrial age, and the notion of assembly line product (for a great primer of the development of distance ed, as well as a piece written in high favor of assembly line, industrialized methodology in learning, see Otto Peters). Briefly, Peters parallels the factors in building distance education with the factors in mechanizing a workforce (people work specific jobs that handle an aspect of a system rather than being a craftsman who sees a system from beginning to end). Whereas traditional education (Peters, who it is worth noting wrote his thoughts in the 1960s, calls it pre-industrial education) involves a teacher handling all aspects of coursework (developing a syllabus, providing content, developing assessment strategies, assessing performance, motivating, scaffolding, interacting), in a distance environment those things can be sourced to multiple individuals (one group develops curriculum, another performs lecture, another provides assessment tools, another assesses based on the tools, another keeps up with discussion boards, etc.).
It would be easy to blame Fatima Wirth, the Georgia Tech professor who led FOE. It would be easy to blame Coursera. And it’s fair to blame both, but it’s not fair to put blame squarely on their shoulders, and this is the trouble of education in a globalized, outsourced, mechanized society. Everyone has a degree of plausible deniability. Like the customer service representative who was not directly involved with a product’s defect, there are so many hands involved in an xMOOC course that when one fails in such a spectacular fashion* we cannot use reflexive data to pinpoint the failure. And that allows everyone to skirt the issue if they choose: Dr. Wirth did not receive the support she needed, Coursera was rushed to put the course to market, etc. So while we expect to use learning analytics to find the points where a student is learning and data mine to enhance that experience, the same cannot happen when doing a post-mortem on a course such as FOE. A student is a party of one, an xMOOC a product of many.
*I do not use spectacular to be provocative; rather, I mean spectacular as in visible. One could argue (and many do) that xMOOCs fail on a daily basis, albeit tacitly.
3) Perhaps this is the greatness of the MOOC: it is in a win-win situation in our current educational climate. It has received the label of disruptive technology without yet providing a disruption. Its completions are heralded as success without a body of scholarly research to confirm. However, at present, it must have relationships with established institutions of academia in order to disrupt. When a problem happens, do we blame the establishment or the disruptive technology? The MOOC is not accredited nor has it shown any interest in becoming so: at its base it is nothing more than a module, a course cartridge, a series of videos not unlike the large body of pre-existing lectures and study guides on the Internet. It splits the process of education from craft to mechanization, and because it does that there is no one person in charge. Problems are fixed in the same manner in which we fix an assembly line machine. However, when the product of the machine is education rather than car, a faulty assembly line is a much bigger problem than a slowdown of production and loss of capital. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t need MOOCs to disrupt in the first place.