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At a recent event, a bigwig at McGraw-Hill, the textbook publisher, urged the audience to take an online course so that we’d have a sense of the future. As a journalist who covers online education, I was embarrassed not to be enrolled in one.

So, a couple weeks ago, when a dear friend in DC asked if I would take an online course with her about how to make online courses, I jumped at the chance. She’d assembled a fancy study group of people with PhDs and impressive employers, from the World Bank to the Smithsonian. Some of them wanted to use online education to solve big global health problems. It felt important to be emailing with them.

The class, entitled “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,” was delivered through Coursera, one of the largest purveyors of massive open online courses or MOOCs. And like Coursera’s other courses, it was free.

The six-week course launched a week ago Monday, January 28th. The instructor, Fatimah Wirth, was from The Georgia Institute of Technology. She had worked with NASA. The course promised to be hands-on; we’d be producing our own online class as a final project.

Within hours, things were going awry. Neither the “Getting Started” tab nor the “syllabus” tab offered much direction on how to begin the class. I wasted an hour taking surveys on my personal learning style. (One said I was a visual learner. The other said I wasn’t).

The biggest problem was breaking our class of more than 41,000 students into discussion groups. Dr. Wirth asked us to sign up using a Google spreadsheet. The only problem was Google’s own support pages clearly state that only 50 people can edit and view a document simultaneously. I was one of the thousands who kept clicking, but was locked out. When I finally got in, it was a mess. Classmates had erased names, substituted their own and added oodles of blank spaces.

My little group of nine stayed intact, but it was disappointing (in a snobbish sort of way) that we were forced to include 11 strangers who typed their names alongside ours. How can you really have a good small group discussion with 20 people anyway? (I remember a professor once telling me that positive effects of small class size evaporate once you exceed 15 students.)

With Google Docs imploding, the teacher suggested that some people randomly start a discussion thread and then asked that 19 others randomly jump on that thread to form a group. But, apparently, the small group discussion technology didn’t cap the participants at 20. More students could barge in and did.

In the meantime, the video lectures were mind-numbing laundry lists of PowerPoint bullet points. A survey of educational philosophies left me no more enlightened than before I watched it. The readings were a bit better. One of my favorites, Teaching with Technology: Tools and Strategies to Improve Student Learning, linked to a hilarious PowerPoint comedy sketch about the stupidity of reading PowerPoint bullet points.

No one missed the irony that this online class about how to create online classes was failing miserably. Discussion forums full of venom were popping up everywhere on the course site.

This is a disaster! And where is the Professor? I am so excited to learn about this topic, but this online course, teaching us how to make online courses, is totally bunked. Google spreadsheet? For thousands of people? Really…? I’m a little nervous about the validity of this course right now.

By day six, a Saturday, the professor shut the course down. All the reading materials, videos, assignments were erased.

The professor’s email to me:

Dear Jill Barshay,

We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.

Yours,
Fatimah

I telephoned and emailed the professor to understand what caused her to pull the plug. She did not get back to me. The story was already hitting the blogosphere, including this exhaustive blog post at Inside Higher Ed.

What did I learn in six days? Not everyone should try to be an online teacher. One of the great ideas behind online education is that there performers who can deliver riveting lectures, who are masters of explication. Wouldn’t it be great if the internet could deliver them to millions of people around the world? That’s what’s marvelous about some of Sal Khan’s mathematical videos. The problem is that almost anyone can set up an online course and thousands of people will enroll. Unfortunately, there’s no guide to tell you who’s good and who isn’t.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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