Web-based class about online education leaves room for improvement

MOOC about online education canceled after a series of issues.

MOOC about online education canceled after a series of issues.

A six-week MOOC (massive open online class) about online education was canceled after only six days when a series of technical and organizational problems derailed the course. More than 41,000 students enrolled in the class, entitled “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,” which was offered through Coursera and taught by FatimahWirth, an instructor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. According to Scott Jaschik, who writes for the education website Inside Higher Ed, many of the students enrolled in the course were teachers, academics or online educators who were expecting a “professional” learning experience. Although the class didn’t quite meet their expectations, many are learning from the course by analyzing what went wrong and recommending ways to avoid these issues in the future.

What went wrong
The mixture of technical and organizational issues that cropped up early in the course left students confused and frustrated. Jill Barshay, a journalist who covers online education, wrote about her own experience for The Hechinger Report.

“Within hours, things were going awry,” Barshay wrote. “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).”

Barshay said that the class also relied on Google Docs to break the class of 41,000 students into discussion groups. Unfortunately, Google Docs only allows 50 people to access and edit a file at once, so most students were locked out of the spreadsheet – and the spike in activity even “crashed the Google server,” according to a note the instructor sent to Barshay and other students.

Barshay also criticized the use of bulleted PowerPoint slides to teach students the course material, which she described as “mind-numbing laundry lists.” Student frustrations over technical issues and a lack of classroom management strategies continued until Coursera responded by canceling the course so that improvements could be made.

What’s the lesson?
Online education is new territory for many educators, so some challenges can be expected. For some experts, the important factor to consider in this incident is what can be learned to avoid issues like these in the future. Debbie Morrison, who writes an online education blog called Online Learning Insights and who also enrolled in the course, provided some advice to future instructors and students who want to take or teach online classes. 

  • Make sure that group work is clearly presented to students, and that students know the benefits of completing the assignment with a group rather than individually.
  • Develop clear classroom management strategies, and give detailed instructions that explain how students should proceed through the course materials.
  • Provide each group with dedicated online discussion space or give groups directions for forming their own dialog spaces.
  • Ensure that the course has adequate technical systems that will support the activities and size of the class.

“MOOCs require a unique instructional strategy,” concluded Morrison, “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.”

Homework for Coursera
On February 3, one day after canceling the course, Coursera turned to its students for insight.

“There were some choices made in the initial design of the class that didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped,” Coursera wrote in an email to students. “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.”

What do you think about this MOOC? Can online education be as effective as in-person learning? Share your thoughts and experiences with us below!

Matt Williams

A self-proclaimed ‘tech geek’, Matt has worked in technology for a decade and divides his time between blogging and working in IT. A huge New York Giants fan, when not watching football Matt gets his game on playing Call of Duty with his friends and other tech bloggers.