In a MOOC Mystery, a Course Suddenly Vanishes

[Update (7/8/2014, 2:47 p.m.): See a new post on this topic: "U. of Zurich Says Professor Deleted MOOC to Raise Student Engagement."]

A massive open online course on making sense of massive open online courses caused massive confusion when the course content was suddenly deleted and the professor started writing cryptic things on Twitter.

The MOOC, called “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required,” was taught by Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a lecturer at the University of Zurich. Offered through Coursera, the course had been conceived of as a meta-MOOC designed to help disoriented educators find their feet in the online landscape. The course “grew out of the author’s experiences as an early adopter and advocate of newer technologies (such as Coursera) for online teaching,” according to a description on Coursera’s website.

So far, the course has produced chaos rather than clarity. All the videos, forums, and other course materials mysteriously vanished from the website last week. As students in the course grappled with the bizarre turn of events, Mr. Dehaye offered only vague, inscrutable tweets.

The professor was behind the deletion, according to Coursera. On Wednesday, Mr. Dehaye “unexpectedly deleted all of the course content from the site, without explanation, leading to significant confusion among the learners,” Daphne Koller, president of Coursera, said in a written statement on Monday.

The deletion was followed by a series of strange dispatches from Mr. Dehaye’s Twitter account, including several alluding to an experiment he might have been conducting and, later, claims that he had been “removed” from his role by Coursera. In other messages, he talked of feeling “lost” and in over his head. Mr. Dehaye did not immediately respond to an email message from The Chronicle on Monday.

Some observers speculated that the lecturer was trying to conduct some kind of social experiment. On July 1, a day before Coursera says the course content disappeared, Mr. Dehaye started a dialogue with several Twitter users about ethics. “i mean ethics as in when you perform an experiment,” he wrote. “i just did a few and feel uneasy about what i have done.”

The next day, the lecturer tweeted at Coursera, saying, “I got trapped.” He immediately added: “I pushed people to express emotion. And over the weekend things changed.”

If the deletion was part of an experiment, Mr. Dehaye appears to have stuck to his guns. “Help the others!” he wrote to several Twitter users, presumably students in his MOOC, who seemed less bewildered than some of their peers. When another Twitter user admitted that he had “lost the plot” on what Mr. Dehaye was trying to do, the professor responded: “First step to #unlearn is to be #confused.”

Mr. Dehaye appears to have stopped tweeting on July 5, shortly after calling on his university to help him “debrief”—a term that in research refers to explaining an experiment to participants after the fact. The university did not immediately respond to an email message from The Chronicle.

In a message to students in the course, Coursera apologized. “We understand that the course included experimental components designed by the professor that have resulted in some course interruptions,” the company wrote. “We are working with the university to make arrangements so that the course can continue to its conclusion in an appropriate manner.”

The case has raised questions about who should be held to account when a free, online course goes awry. Coursera, which has positioned itself as a platform provider, says decisions about how the courses should be taught rest with its university partners and their professors, while the company handles the infrastructure. “Coursera’s approach is always to encourage the university partners to experiment and try new ways of teaching,” said Nikki Sequeira, a spokeswoman for the company.

“But,” she added, “there are parameters.” However, those parameters are “internal,” she said. She did not immediately provide them to The Chronicle.

Coursera’s terms of service are public. Those terms absolve both the company and the universities from liability for inaccuracies, outages, interruptions, or security problems arising from the MOOCs. They also stipulate that “defects” in the courses may not necessarily be corrected.

That lack of accountability is a problem, according to George Siemens, an education technologist who founded the first massive open online course and has been heavily involved with the research being conducted in contemporary MOOCs. Just because MOOCs are free does not mean that students should not expect to be taken care of, he said in an interview on Monday.

“Learning is a vulnerable process,” said Mr. Siemens, and “there is a responsibility on the part of the person you’re making yourself vulnerable to.”

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