The hullabaloo regarding #MassiveLearning is a unique example in the MOOC phenomenon — a three-week course on the Coursera platform offered via the University of Zurich’s Paul-Olivier Dehaye which abruptly halted in Week 2, with all course resources deleted and no sign of Dr. Dehaye (save a list of cryptic tweets). The confusion in the course led to blogs and social media conversation, coupled with a lack of answers from involved parties (Dr. Dehaye, University of Zurich, Coursera) or educational media resulted in a flurry of social media activity on July 7. Was this similar to the Fundamentals of Online Education MOOC that cancelled in Spring 2013? Was this an experiment conducted by Dr. Dehaye on his course? Was this a high-profile AWOL professor situation?
On July 8, the situation seemed solved…the MOOC mystery (Scooby Doo references were plentiful in social media conversation on July 7) the result of a pedagogical experiment to gain a greater participation from users gone wrong. Coursera says it had no idea this was going to happen, comments backed up from the official words from the University of Zurich. Dr. Dehaye has yet to comment, leaving his tweets and academic history as ample ground for conspiracy discussion (nod to Kate Bowles for the research). Jonathan Rees has already written a response to this from the perspective of the student, questioning the quality control of a MOOC provider such as Coursera in terms of the trope that MOOCs provide the best professors to the world.
I do not believe the blame easily lies with Coursera here; this does not seem to me an example of Coursera overreaching for clicks and users. This is an embarrassment for Coursera, but blame seems an inappropriate reaction. However, I am interested in the avoidance of blame in a society where people seem out to find a point person to blame. If this experiment had happened at the University of Zurich, culpability would be placed firmly upon Dr. Dehaye and in turn the University itself (assuming Dr. Dehaye had acted in this fashion w/o proper consent and approval from IRB). In a MOOC, there are more moving pieces, which creates a space for plausible deniability. Coursera distanced itself from the hubbub, focusing on how they are a service provider and conduit for the university and not a developer of content or pedagogy. However, the University of Zurich also distanced itself, focusing on the role of Coursera and how methods in the application of the course did not meet Coursera’s guidelines nor did Coursera consent. And both organizations invoked the internal nature of their rules and regulations when discussing the matter with Steve Kolowich of the Chronicle.
In a movement where Open is branded a core tenet of the phenomenon, we find more and more it is used as marketing and hype rather than mission and value. The problem with #MassiveTeaching does not stop with Dr. Dehaye conducting an experiment on students w/o consent of organizations or the students; it continues into the parcels and fragments of information provided to the public by the represented organizations about why and how such an event happened. Openness as an educational objective is not something that can be hyped when driving the press to support notions of democratic learning for the globe yet cloistered when inevitable problems arise. In an experiment designed to see how students reacted to the lack of authority in a space, we see the failure of leadership extends well above the level of the professor and to the organizations sponsoring the mission itself.