You've been punk'd! However, that was an educational experience

It's now the end of Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required (aka #massiveteaching) on coursera. Well, almost, we still have a couple of days left. I guess that the lesson here is that we were (the "learners") were punk'd† by Paul-Olivier Dehaye of the Univerisity of Zurich.

After that last blog post (and subsequent pickup of the post by George Siemens and others) Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle wanted to chat with me about this MOOC experience. I only had time for one of the two before things went to press, so my 15 minutes of fame went to IHE.  Both IHE and the Chronicle have written about the topic, and have received some information from Coursera on the incident.  Others have also written about it (see here, here and here)

It's surprising to me that the University, and Coursera, waited until after this thing was a big issue in order to respond in the class, and clue people into what was happening. On Wednesday (day 3 of Week 3/3 of the course) the University posted the following:
Dear Coursera Students,
Prof. Dehaye, instructor of the Coursera course “Massiv Teaching - New Skills needed”, has deleted content during the course as part of his pedagogical concept in order to get more students actively engage in the course forum. In the course of the events confused students contacted Coursera directly, as they assumed a technical problem being the reason for the disappearing of course material.
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. Prof. Dehaye’s course included experimental teaching aspects which led to further confusion among students.
Coursera and the University of Zurich decided on Friday, July 3rd, to reinstall the course’s full content and paused editing privileges of the instructor until final clarification on the issue would be obtained.
The course is now back on track, and will conclude as planned, with the final assessment that is due this week. Once again, our apologies for the confusion and thank you for your patience.
- The University of Zurich Team

This response is quite interesting.  First it shows that Coursera has a "concept" of what MOOC teaching and learning looks like, and they are packaging it with their LMS. I guess the only sanctioned way to design and teach on Coursera is the Coursera way. This to me is quite problematic from a pedagogical stance; and I am sure others have written about this before and will continue to write about it. It's also problematic because it has shown that neither the University, nor the provider (Coursera) have some sort of way to address potential issues that crop up in these courses, especially the unexpected issues like the professor going rogue and deleting everything, or the professor just leaving the course and not telling anyone about it.

Now, we all knew that there was an experimental element to the class, Paul didn't hide it, but we weren't clued into the experiment. The experiment happened to us instead of having the learner play a controlling role in the experiment. If you know that you are supposed to set your own path, from the onset of the experiment, then you set your own path. If you think (given the Coursera model) that things function a certain way, when things don't, then you assume that they are broken and someone in a position of authority (i.e. someone with editing rights on the platform) needs to fix it so that we can all move on.

There have been a number of comments going around on research ethics of this whole situation. Personally I feel conflicted about this. I honestly don't think there was an ethical violation here on Paul's part. It doesn't stop me from feeling like this is a major facepalm moment, but I don't think he violated any ethics.  We all signed up willingly, and voluntarily (I hope!) for the Coursera platform, and then we again signed up for this "course." What makes me conflicted about this is the inevitable feeling of bait and switch that many people experienced. They were sold one thing, and they experienced something totally different.  It doesn't matter that this was a free course (a comment in the Chronicle article), so who the heck cares, the course was not free.  People spent their time and effort in an earnest attempt to engage with their fellow learners and what they got was "technical errors" (which were planned), confusion, and manipulation.

The result of this was really pedagogically ineffective. Paul's attempt really didn't address any of the stated learning objectives (saved on Scribd for those who aren't in the course), and it created a lot of ill will toward him, and the medium. There are better ways to help "disorient" educators to help them find their footing in the online landscape (the part in italics is one of the course "goals" - I guess it was written in invisible ink...). Anyone who has participated in a cMOOC can tell you that there are better ways. Each cMOOC is a unique, and initially provides for a disorienting experience until you get your footing, especially when you are new to MOOCs.  This is accomplished without pulling the rug under you, and by helping to create learner communities, learner initiated communities without the drama involved in #massiveteaching. This language of finding one's footing in the online world also seems to imply that people don't yet have a footing on the online landscape which in my opinion is a gross misunderstanding of the situation. What will probably happen is that participants in #massiveteaching will carry this experience forward and associate such shenanigans with Paul and possibly with online learning in general. Paul's tone-deafness to what the learners are saying, and the fact that he doesn't understand anything about existing literacies of learners (computer, critical, network, and so on) means that Paul has done a disservice to online learning everywhere.

In the IHE post Paul Dehaye is quoted as saying:
MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it, 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.
OK, so I guess he was trying to make a statement about the dangers of the MOOC providers, and as Siemens points out they lack any governance structure and are leeching on the teaching functions of academic institutions. I'd love to say to Paul "Welcome to 2012."  Again, anyone involved with MOOCs, and is critical of the discourse around xMOOCs,  has known this for a while. Paul just showcased his ignorance, and further points us to the fact that this stunt was a bad way to go about raising awareness of the issues around xMOOCs. He lost more people than he gained. People will remember this stunt more than the stunt's message. It's a shame, because it is something we ought to be discussing.  Back in 2011 and 2012 I was really excited about MOOC research. I still am, but we only really see published research from cMOOCs.  Courses running on Coursera, EdX, and Udacity are like black holes. We rarely see any research coming out, and what does come out seems quite sanitized, like a press release.  What does happen to the massive data collected from student actions in a MOOC? Who controls this data? Who has access to it? Can we use it for pedagogically meaningful reasons?

Finally, in the course, I guess some people drank the cool-aid because this showed up in the discussion forums of the course:
In retrospect I think this MOOC was a brilliant example of Collaborative Problem Solving!! The challenge for me now is to think of problems that would engage my students as meaningfully as Paul managed to engage us. Real learning happened (whether we liked it or not), real emotions were felt and a huge bunch of strangers came together, offered our skills and helped the group work through the problem of learning online. Well done Paul and Coursera on opening my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities for learning!

Which was followed by a reply:
yes __NAME__, we already addressed the situation with CPS, if you looked at the FB site and the Google group of this course we took this course to a different level.. I am sure now all the members who took those have lost their motivation, This was infact my assignment asnwer in the Assesentment and teaching in 21st Centuray.. 
Part of me is wondering if this is falling in hook-line-and-sinker, or if this is making lemons out of lemonade, or if it's a coping mechanism on the part of some learners, a sense of getting something out of a giant disappointment. I think that there is something fundamentally wrong about claiming that you got something out of the course by going to an off-course resource to get something out of that course.  Now don't get me wrong, I've been in a lot of learning situations, in MOOCs, where a lot of learning occured on Social Media Sites like Facebook (Rhizo14 is a good example). However it was the learner's choice to go there (as was the learner's choice to go to the G+ group for Rhizo14 in lieu or in addition to Facebook).  It wasn't a forced path like was this case.   The learning communities of cMOOCs are created by learners, and the existence of such communities is aggregated through the network so that others may join if they wish. Learning on SMS is a grassroots behavior in cMOOCs.  In this case it seemed like the pre-determined path that Paul had set out, but only if the labrats (learners) went in the "appropriate" direction. While ethically it might be questionable, I find it pedagogically dishonest.

To wrap things up, the final "assignment" has been released, and it seemes a bit disingenuous to me, given everything that transpired.  It was a peer graded essay with the following three questions:
  1. Please state briefly what you knew or thought about MOOCs when entering the course. It might help to give some limited information about yourself (are you a student? an instructor? in what context?). This question is asked so your peers can assess your progress in the course.
  2. Please state briefly what you hoped to learn in this course. Again, this question is asked so your peers can assess your progress in the course.
  3. Did the student provide information about what they expected to learn in this course?

With regard to this "Assignment" I feel rather cynical on all fronts. On the one hand it feels like this is just another data-gathering stunt. So Paul ran his "experiment" and now he is collecting data to see what the learners say. The learners that didn't un-enroll from the course that is.  On the other hand, even if this is an earnest attempt to have learners introspect on this whole process, the attempt falls really flat on its face because this data is tainted.  The questions don't address anything that happened in the course. It feels like these were written with the original learning objectives in mind, and as such it reduces this final exercise into a farce. It is a farce that does not respect the learners, and it is a farce of the educational process.

Who is to blame for this farce? I don't think that the blame lies solely on one entity (and calls for the Paul's head are a bit over the top in my opinion). Coursera, University of Zurich and the Professor are equally to blame, as are the circumstances (i.e. lack of formal procedures). This was ill-conceived, there was apparently no appropriate or substantive communication between these three parties, no apparent oversight by some sort of curriculum committee at the University of Zurich, little-to-no oversight from Coursera (but they would love to charge you premium for verified certificates). At the end of the day, Paul, in my book, at best is a misguided academic, and at worst he is a troll. I think we have a long way ahead of us to make sure that such abuses of learner trust are not repeated again.

† Punk'd reference explanation for those who aren't aware of this show: wikipedia link.


I was a former student in that class. I received email looking like official Coursera from Dr Dehaye telling me one day in advance that he was going to shut down the discussion forum. I did not know Dehaye other than I was in the course. I sent a report to Coursera security, as I thought it was a prank or system security problem. Coursera confirmed they got my report. Now I wonder if some of the class were selected to get the email and others didn't

The email said the reason to stop the discussion forum was because everyone was so over-involved...this contradicts what UZH stated that the goal was to facilitate communication! Before the course opened Dehaye discussed a plan on elearnspace blog to use that Course course as a precursor to having folks work on open-source edX projects.

'm not convinced that the "experiment" was not a guise to use Coursera to attract 1000's and then find a way to continue working with a select few on an entirely different project. See the url where I found Dehaye's comments.

I quit Coursrsa and that class. Just too weird.
This is really informative, thank you. Something that's bothered me all along is the possibility that while Paul-Olivier Dehaye is not able to answer questions (and I think it's quite plausible that U Zurich will have required him not to) we have overinterpreted some of the other things he seemed to have said online. The consequence of this is to see events as deliberate and planned in advance.

But this doesn't work for me, because of the serious lack of detail in the way the course presented itself to potential enrolees. What drew people to such a short course, really? That's something I'd like to understand more about.

It's especially relevant, I think, given that both FutureLearn and Open2Study are moving away from semester-length courses to more bite sized learning chunks. Will this reveal itself to be part of a broader pivot to professional development across the xMOOC platforms, do you think?
Kate you make some good points!

As far as short "courses" go, that didn't really seem all that strange to me. A few years ago there was a MOOC MOOC (called MOOCMOOC) offered by the fine folks at Hybrid Pedagogy (good web journal/blog to follow!) Their "MOOC" was 1 week long and was quite intensive! I followed on the periphery because it seemed to go a million miles an hour. A 3 week (collaborative) exploration on #massiveteaching seemed "normal" to me after my work on Open2Study and that MOOCMOOC.

FutureLearn has some interesting work out there (this is me if you are on FL as well: ); as well as Open2Study. The thing I like about O2S is that the course is bite sized, and the fact that the courses repeat 12 times a year (I think), so that if you miss one session, you don't have to wait long to get on the ride again. The problem is the potential lack of community. I've seen courses on my O2S roster that are dead in the forums (or any other way to communicate with fellow learners). They could benefit from a little different instructional design ("better" is relative IMHO), but there are good points. PD is an interesting application of MOOCs, especially for lifelong learning.

As far as Dehaye goes, yes, a lot has been written with very little information directly from him. Maybe he is saving it for his autobiography, who knows? Either way, I have a feeling that this will follow him around in his career. There is a Greek saying that I think applies here:" You didn't know?!? Why didn't you ask?" I think that there are quite a few people new to MOOCs out there that want to create MOOCs for a variety of reasons, but they never come to the established MOOC community (beyond coursera et al.), or their community of instructional designers to get help to run their MOOC (and increase chances of having a more successful MOOC, however success might be measured). If it does turn out that this was an #FOEMOOC type of meltdown, then I think future profs will need to think hard about the development of their MOOCs :)
That is a good question! I looked through my email history (just in case the Spam filter caught the coursera email), but I did not find anything from coursera or Dehaye on this topic. Who knows? Maybe it was only sent to a select amount of students.

I wonder if others took the route you did and quit coursera as well. I think their investors will most likely not like this ;-)
@foveros , I'm sure Coursera has records of all the email Dehaye sent. The email said the forums would be down from Fri-Sunday, turned out longer, of course. That email also said to goto a twitter feed, which turns out has been quite active, although very unsettling.

Wish coursera would comment, but not holding my breath. Also wish UZH would issue a corrrect statement, because shutting down the forums on purpose would not help raise student engagement or communication as UZH suggested.

Popular posts from this blog

Discussion forums in MOOCs are counter-productive...well, sort of...

Awarding the right thing

Please stop fetishizing the campus...