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Negating the learner in the learning process

Yesterday, a Coursera course was closed after the first week of delivery. 40,000 students were left somewhat confused. I posted a few thoughts on this on our xeducation site. The interesting stuff is in the comments and that’s what I’d like to emphasize here.

Sarah Pravitra states:

Wish they could at least have left the forums open for a limited period so we could have grabbed our group members, found a new tribe home elsewhere to keep talking and working together and been able to share [o]ur whereabouts with other groups.
I have never worked so hard in my life. Up till 4am every night. It wasn’t the course so much as the buzz from being with people in the same field with the same passion and need to know “stuff”.
I’m lucky, my group have a facebook page, we are collaborating with another refugee group on facebook and we are going to try building pur own mooc, learning by doing (:
The spark was lit and the fire still burning. But why did Coursera have to try and extinquish the networks and shared work we created by pulling the plug on the forums with no notice?

In a follow up comment she states:

But don’t ram home the message that the students are just an *inconvenient necessity* by grabbing your ball and walking off with it, while we were in mid game and didn’t know how to contact our teammates once the pitch went “pooof”.

Keith Devlin provides clarification on who likely made the decision to close the forum:

Having given a MOOC on Coursera last fall, and being right now in the throes of revising it to run again in March, I am pretty sure that the decision to cut off the course website in this case was the instructor’s. Coursera likely had no idea that was happening. Coursera provides the platform, but leaves it up to the instructor to design the course, to build the website, and to make it live or not. The instructor controls the site.

This incident is significant. MOOCs are nothing without learners. In this instance, it looks like the instructor decided to shut down the course. Faculty own the content, Coursera owns the platform. But neither should own the conversation. That belongs to the learners. The difficultly is that many learners interact in Coursera forums. Learners should own their own spaces. Sometimes, however, it’s easier to jump in and have a threaded conversation. In many courses, there is a better chance that you’ll get noticed or get a response. The grsshopper approach that we have used in our MOOCs (software developed by Stephen Downes) emphasizes distributed interaction and learner ownership of their contributions and their spaces of learning. It makes for a messier, and sometimes chaotic, course, but it mirrors the structure of the web: distributed, networked, individualized, personal.

I had a similar “screw you, we own this” experience with CCK08. After the course ended, the archives were up for about three years. Then, last year sometime, University of Manitoba (motto: the web is out of space so we have to delete archives even when they are regularly being accessed) deleted the course discussions. Fortunately, a majority of learners participated on their own blog, so they still have their own contributions. But it’s now messy and disconnected. While Moodle wasn’t the central node in CCK08, it was an important node. Some of the coherence of the course could be discovered just by reading through the blog posts.
UPDATE: Thanks to Roel in the comments. I will retract my snarky comments above. The CCK08 archives are hosted here at U of Manitoba.

The message that closing forums or shutting courses when they’ve already started is that it negates the value and role of the learner. MOOCs need learners. Even if the decision to close the forum was the instructors in the incident above, it is still a reputation concern for Coursera. Learners aren’t saying “instructor X killed the course”. They are saying “wow, this Coursera course was killed”. I’d like to know more about how course closing decisions are made and how quality is vetted early in course planning.

Unfortunately, loading things to YouTube or creating groups on Facebook just transfers ownership to someone else. Get a blog folks. Host it yourself. Download your archives.


  1. mjerala wrote:

    As i understood, the course is only temporarily suspending in order to make improvements. I am willing to wait to continue what I started.

    Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  2. france wrote:

    I just have received this message from Coursera
    “We were inspired to see the number of people who expressed an interest in seeing the class resume. There were some choices made in the initial design of the class that didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped. 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.

    Thank you for your patience as we work to provide you with a great learning experience in the next version.

    The FOE Course Staff”
    So I hope the course will re-open in the next days.
    I agree with the question “Moocs are nothing without learners” and the converation belongs to the learners. I think that these difficulties have arisen from the fact that all interactions are within the online environment and therefore they overload the server.
    I am currently attending another course of Coursera, from Edinburgh, and it uses several external social networks and many blog of the students. I n this way the content is safe and accessible, and the course can work despite the large number of students.
    bye, france (sorry for my english…I’m improving it…)

    Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Roel Cantada wrote:

    CCK08′s moodle forum seems to have been moved here:

    Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink
  4. wilko Dijkhuis wrote:

    The ironic thing is that the course instructor has a PhD in education; she specializes in e-learning. The course is about how to plan and deliver e-learning. Of all the 233 Coursera course instructors she is probably the one with the best formal qualifications to teach a MOOC.

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 1:33 am | Permalink
  5. Barbara Yalof wrote:

    While I understand the frustration of students who were actively involved in the e-learning course, let’s give the instructor a chance to explain what happened and improve her course. As we all know, many important things are learned by mistakes, and this is no exception. A discussion of what went wrong within the course will be very enlightening.

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  6. Doug Smith wrote:

    I had a similar experience when a Yahoo group that I’d been a frequent contributer was shut down by the “moderator”. Hundreds of fascinating comments from people in training and development suddenly disappeared.

    We must evolve a method of preserving the work of the community. We must raise the bar on “ownership” and recognize co-ownership more clearly.

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  7. Rosa Ojeda wrote:

    We still have the illusion that we have the power! As you say, George, MOOC learning should emphasize “…distributed interaction and learner ownership of their contributions and their spaces of learning…” It should mirror “…the structure of the web: distributed, networked, individualized, personal.” Still a long trail to walk!!

    Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  8. Your comment on ownership of the learner is so important, but it never hit me as much as now. The reflections taking place, the gradual build upon each others arguments and insights and the revelations following those discussions … are in fact the materialization of the learning. And those cannot but be personal and individualized as learning is per definition a path which one walks alone. George, it must be fun having such an illuminated mind as you, learning with every bit I read.

    Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  9. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Inge – We are in agreement! – the gradual building on the work of others is such an important aspect of science, why shouldn’t it also be prominent in the learning process? The experiences of each learner should serve as a building block for the learning of others. This is only possible when the process and interaction is transparent and owned by the learners.

    Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink
  10. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Rosa – yes, it is a long trail to walk. But it is an important one. The education model that we are helping to build today is one that will educate the next generation. We need to be sure that we are building it on the right priorities and with the right principles.

    Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  11. gsiemens wrote:

    I agree Doug – we need to do a better job of preserving the work of a community. In the process, we also need to preserve and acknowledge the importance of individual expertise in help to build and shape that community. To date, our archive methods are week and our principles of ownership are unclear.

    Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink
  12. Rosa Ojeda wrote:

    In a few weeks I will be attending a three days workshop from UNIVERSIA (an organization of Iberoamerican Universities) in Miami. They will be presenting a new platform for MOOC’s. It is called Miríada X. Do you know about this new platform? Guests like Stephen Carson from MIT OCW, Samantha Earp from HarvardX, and others will be presenting. In your previous responses you are addressing very important issues regarding the state of MOOC’s, especially when you describe it as “an educational model” that should be built with the right priorities and the right principles. I am willing to hear what they have to say in this regard. Are new platforms for MOOCs the answer? I have a feeling we are not moving into the right direction! I will keep in touch!

    Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 1:31 am | Permalink