In part one on my series reporting on the “Multidisciplinary Research for Online Education” (MROE) workshop held last week in DC, I addressed the deceptively simple question, What is a MOOC? Today, I’ll continue exploring the language we use to talk about MOOCs by tackling the question, Whose MOOC is it?
A couple of weeks ago, the open online course “Fundamentals of Online Education” (FOE) experienced something of a meltdown. As I understand it, students in the course were asked to assemble into groups, although it wasn’t clear at the outset why. That posed a bit of a problem, but the showstopper was the fact that students were sent to a Google spreadsheet to self-organize into groups. As it turns out, Google allows no more than 50 individuals to edit a spreadsheet at the same time, which meant that the hundreds, maybe thousands, of FOE students who hit this particular spreadsheet simultaneously… crashed the spreadsheet. The course instructors tried to recover from this technical challenge, but weren’t able to do so successfully and so the course was taken offline, to be offered again sometime in the future.
Calling the failure of this online course a disaster is perhaps hyperbole, given recent incidents involving meteors and asteroids, but it certainly received some attention. Here’s a question for you: Who should take the blame for this course failure? That is, whose MOOC is it? Is it a Georgia Tech course? Or a Coursera course?
Amy Collier, who supports online learning initiatives at Stanford, pointed out to me during the MROE workshop that an awful lot of people, including me, refer to these MOOCs as “Coursera courses” and not, say, “Georgia Tech courses” or “Vanderbilt courses.” I’ve used “Coursera course” as a shorthand to refer to the open online courses that Vanderbilt on the Coursera platform, but, thanks to Amy, I’m coming to see that such language is perhaps misleading.
I blogged earlier this month about the challenging design and production process required to launch one of these courses, a process undertaken largely by Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. Sure, Coursera assists with the course preparation and provides an online platform for the courses, but the heavy lifting is done by Vanderbilt. It’s also Vanderbilt that is responsible for setting the bar when it comes to the academic quality and rigor of these courses. We decide the content, design the assessments, and determine what merits a “Statement of Accomplishment.”
If I’m going to use shorthand for “Vanderbilt open online courses on the Coursera platform,” perhaps “Vanderbilt course” is more accurate. As Amy noted, I don’t call our on-campus courses “Blackboard courses” just because they use Blackboard as a course management system. I’ve grown used to saying “Coursera course,” but I’ve been working to modify my language since having this discussion.
What about the crash-and-burn that was “Fundamentals of Online Education”? Who should take the blame? Well, if it’s a Georgia Tech course–and I would now argue that it is–then that would be Georgia Tech. If universities are going to have responsibility for their open online courses, that means universities will have to take the blame when they fail. We acknowledged that, at least implicitly, here at Vanderbilt, when we spent time discussing ways we can prevent our online courses from breaking in the way that FOE did.
Here’s another, related question that Amy Collier has helped me think about more deeply: Who is a Vanderbilt student? As I tweeted the other day:
I describe the work that I do as faculty development, but I view that work as a service to the teaching mission of the university. I work with faculty to help them teach more effectively so that the student learning experience at Vanderbilt is enhanced. As a result, I have a relatively small direct impact on student learning at Vanderbilt (limited, for the most part, to the one course I teach each year) but a very large indirect impact on students.
In the past, when our teaching center has had more requests for assistance than we could field, we’ve used the question “Will this support a credit-bearing course?” as a criterion for determining how to allocate our resources. With the advent of these open online courses, I don’t know if that criterion makes as much sense anymore. I think we’ll still use “Will it enhance the learning experience for Vanderbilt students?” as a criterion, but the set of Vanderbilt students is about to get much, much larger. The question then becomes, do we prioritize the interests of tuition-paying, credit-earning students over other students?
Image: “Calf,” farlukar, Flickr (CC)