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The Mystery of the Missing MOOC

July 8, 2014

(Note: This story has been updated. See the bottom of the post for the most recent update.)

A massive open online course instructor was removed from his own course last week -- or was he? As confusion brews among students in the half-finished, suspended MOOC, some observers are asking if the instructor orchestrated a social experiment without permission -- or a farce.

Paul-Olivier Dehaye’s three-week course, “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required,” reportedly launched without controversy. Its first week featured the video lectures and forum chatter common to most MOOCs. The course targeted people in higher education who felt “threatened,” “lost” or “unprepared technology-wise,” according to the course description -- a MOOC for MOOC skeptics, in other words.

When students returned for the second week, the forum was closed, and their classmates had vanished along with the course content. The forum is now back online, but Coursera, which hosts the MOOC lists it as inactive -- students can sign up for updates about future sessions and preview some of the content, but it remains effectively closed to outsiders.

“At this point, it does not seem that the course is on,” said Apostolos Koutropoulos, an instructional design instructor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who enrolled in the MOOC. “It seems like there isn’t much conversation in the class -- with the exception of everybody’s wondering what’s going on.”

So far, the students have not received an answer.

Dehaye, assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland, on July 3 tweeted “Students, please reflect on the fact that a technology company has now effectively replaced your teacher.” The next day, he added “Just to confirm, I was removed from the #MassiveTeaching course. Please do not question my integrity without facts.”

Coursera apologized for the confusion in a statement sent to students over the weekend. “We understand that the course included experimental components designed by the professor that have resulted in some course interruptions,” the statement read. “We are working with the university to make arrangements so that the course can continue to its conclusion in an appropriate manner.”

But a spokeswoman for Coursera made one point: Dehaye has not been removed from the MOOC. In fact, she said, Dehaye deleted all the content from the MOOC, and Coursera has been working with the university to restore it and allow the students to finish the course.

The spokeswoman declined to make any further comments, saying the university “is still deciding on a final course of action.”

Dehaye, however, has called for the “immediate escrow of the @Coursera dataset of my full course and both of my accounts,” and acknowledged that, by tweeting, he was “breaching restrictions understandably placed against me by [the university].”

An interview request sent to Dehaye was instead answered by Ulrich Straumann, professor of experimental physics and dean of studies at Zurich. Tuesday morning, Straumann confirmed that Dehaye had deleted the course content "as part of his pedagogical concept in order to get more students actively engage in the course forum."

"Unfortunately, Prof. Dehaye had not previously informed Coursera of this part of his pedagocial approach: Deleting course material is not compatible with Coursera’s course concept, where students all over the globe decide when they want to watch a particular course video," Straumann said in an email. "Prof. Dehaye’s course included experimental teaching aspects which led to further confusion among students.”

While some initially blamed Coursera after seeing Dehaye’s tweets, there were also early signs that Dehaye himself was behind the confusion.

On July 2, Dehaye tweeted “I have now confused my students. They were close to getting the point.” Later that day, he tweeted “Once the Internet figures it out, please join me in the biggest mindfuck ever.” Once students began to ask why the course had been taken offline, he thanked them for bringing it up on social media, saying “you and others will decide the plan.”

That’s exactly what some students have done. One student created her own lesson plan. On the resurrected forum, one student wondered, “Are we all dead or just over-emotional?” Another preached patience in all capital letters: “KEEP CALM AND RESPECT COURSERA!”

Dehaye has used the hashtags #MassiveTeaching and #MOOCgame to promote the course. According to one student, he encouraged followers to spread the former on social media during the ongoing World Cup to “fight #FacebookExperiment” -- a reference to the social network’s tampering with its users emotions by tweaking the types of posts they saw more frequently in their news feeds.

“[Dehaye] appears to be conducting a social media/MOOC experiment in the most unethical manner,” the student said in a post that is currently the most viewed on the forum. “In my opinion his behavior is discrediting the University of Zurich, as well as Coursera.”

As the mystery captivated the post-holiday weekend crowd on Twitter, more details about the potential experiment were unearthed. Kate Bowles, a senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong, found Dehaye’s name attached to a 2003 paper in which the authors calculated how 100 people could escape from imprisonment when their only means of communication was a lightbulb -- a classic math problem.

Bowles also found what appeared to be Dehaye’s contributions to the community blog MetaFilter.

“I would be interested to hear people's opinions on the idea of using voluntariat work in MOOCs to further research (in mathematics, particularly),” Dehaye wrote in one post. “Would this be exploitative? What would be good reward systems? Fame, scientific paper, internship?” He later shared his plans to teach the MOOC, and in response to a thread about the Facebook experiment, wrote “it is hard to pass the message on [C]oursera that emotions are important in teaching but that expressing those emotions can lead to data collection.”

On July 1, Dehaye tweeted “[D]oes anyone do ethics in the open?” In the conversation that followed, he answered his own question from the @MassiveTeaching account: “[T]here are reasons not to be open.”

Update:

"Hi, I would like to discuss with everyone what is going on in this course."

That's how Dehaye began a July 4 post hosted on MoPad, a collaborative text editor, in which he explains his reasons for conducting an experiment he said followed "YEARS of unconscious planning." (The post has since been deleted, but can be viewed by using the time slider.)

Disappointed by how people in academe reacted to the Facebook experiment, Dehaye appears to have staged the experiment to raise awareness about the use of personal data.

"MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it," Dehaye wrote. "I want to fight scientifically for the idea, yet teach, and I have signed contracts, which no one asks me about....  I am in a bind. Who do I tell about my project? My students? But this idea of the #FacebookExperiment is in itself dangerous, very dangerous. People react to it and express more emotions, which can be further mined."

The goal of his experiment, Dehaye wrote, was to "confuse everyone, including the university, [C]oursera, the Twitter world, as many journalists as I can, and the course participants. The goal being to attract publicity.... I want to show how [C]oursera tracks you."

According to the MoPad chat log, Dehaye meant for students to find the post. "[W]henever [I] ask [Coursera] for data, they ask me questions about what [I] want to do with it," Dehaye said. "[I] feel they are fishing for business models, which I am certainly not going to give them. [I] don't want to tell them how to track you."

The goal, Dehaye said, was not "to destroy [C]oursera, just insist to those students that there are dangers."

As the timing of the post coincides with Coursera realizing that content has been deleted from his course, Dehaye mentions receiving emails from the MOOC provider "asking what is going on. A lot of pressure from them now. They are confused just like you were, and I intended to confuse them even more because they were not ready to challenge their own pedagogical practices fast enough, judging from past experience."

Unfortunately, Dehaye continues, he spent the day sunbathing and "hanging out with my child to relax," and his cell phone ran out of power. "They said that I was doing one thing, while I was merely making them believe I was doing it," he wrote. "My university got scared ..., and I got 'digitally fired' from [C]oursera. As 'simple' as that."

Dehaye has since called for the university to help him debrief "internally and externally" -- referring to the process where participants in an experiment are let in on the secret.

"Debriefing is absolutely ethically required when human subjects research is performed in any study that uses an 'intervention' and the human subjects have been deceived," a former student enrolled in the MOOC said in an email. "This would be especially so if the human subjects did not give informed consent for the research. This is the 'wow' factor. The real question is 'What exactly were the intervention(s)' used on these Coursera human subjects?"

 

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