Maybe it was inevitable that one of the new massive open online courses would crash. After all, MOOCs are being launched with considerable speed, not to mention hype. But MOOC advocates might have preferred the collapse of a course other than the one that was suspended this weekend, one week into instruction: "Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application."
Technology and design problems are largely to blame for the course's problems. And many students are angry that a course about online education -- let alone one offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology -- wouldn't have figured out the tech issues in advance, or been able to respond quickly once they became evident. Many of the problems related to the course's use of Google Docs to sign up for group discussions.
Among the comments on blogs and Twitter: "Wowzers, 40,000 students signed up for #foemooc considering google spreadsheets limit of 50 simultaneous editors ... not a good choice!" and "Egads, this group thing in #foemooc is a giant clusterf*#k."
Those comments weren't coming from random undergraduates. As a number of students noted, much of the class seemed to be made up of professors, teachers and experts on online education (including Inside Higher Ed readers who forwarded information about the course to us) and many of these students expected a professional experience. They reacted with a mix of anger and humor to the implosion of the course, tweeting " 'Fundamentals of Online Education' MOOC, broke down in the first week. Cue scathing declarations of symbolism" and "Any one else find it ironic that the Fundamentals in Online Education #coursera class fell apart after one week?"
The course instructor -- Fatimah Wirth -- sent an e-mail to the 41,000 students over the weekend saying in its entirety: "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."
While some of the online commentary from students requested more explanation, most seemed to understand that the group forums Wirth had said were vital to the course were crashing, with some information entered by some students accidentally erased by others, and some students unable to enter the forums at all. Several said that Wirth seemed to be trying to salvage the course without an adequate technology infrastructure. Further irony: The course promised to teach students how to deal with these issues in their own online offerings. The course description said that "you will explore online learning pedagogy, online course design, privacy and copyright issues, online assessments, managing an online class, web tools and Learning Management Systems."
Wirth did not respond to an e-mail message seeking details about what happened. Neither did Coursera.
Some students posted detailed descriptions of what went wrong on blogs. The blog Online Learning Insights featured a course review called "How NOT to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix It." The post described problems participating in group discussions, a lack of clarity about the objectives of the group discussion and a general lack of information for frustrated students. Quoting from e-mail messages sent to students, the post notes lack of access to parts of the Google Docs created for the course, and a situation in which the group work became chaotic.
"Group work can provide meaningful learning, in the right context with the support of a sound instructional strategy," the post says. "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 the time and energy she has done which is considerable."
Several students reported that the forums were designed for small groups, but had no apparent limits on the number who could join, so theoretically small groups quickly became large, unworkable groups, resulting in tons of e-mail notifications and little understanding of what to do.
The blog How People Learn Online noted that the course illustrated that when things go wrong on a MOOC, they go wrong in front of a larger group than even experienced professors have ever faced at one time.
"The course abruptly ended with an e-mail today," the post said. "It must have been very difficult for the instructor to try to continue to repair the issues with 40,000 students participating. This is a hard lesson to learn I imagine – MOOC design and traditional online course design are very different. I don’t think they were ready for the amplification of troubles and the cascading effects of what might be a minor issue in a traditional online course. There will be quite a few disappointed students. I have had technical glitches and have made poor design courses in the first run of many online courses over the years. But I never had to endure the crash and burn of a course that was taught in the open with so many witnesses. My sympathies are with the instructor…."
(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to clarify some facts.)