Instructional Design and the #MOOC: the danger of not knowing what we don’t know

I read an article sent to me today by I saw it fly across my twitter feed yesterday, but hadn’t had the chance to revisit it.  It’s called: Oh, the Irony: Coursera suspends online course about how to run an online course.

It’s about one seasoned online designer’s attempt to push the envelope in a MOOC – which ended in student outrage and the suspension of the course for redesign after only one week.  Apparently there were some problems with a Google Doc, and some students changed sign up information which impacted other students negatively. I could argue whether this was really a “design issue”. It seems more like a glitch to me – and a lack of information about students’ tech skills at the onset. Whatever the issue, it took the class down in flames.

One sentence in this article made my blood run cold:

“… instead of foreseeing <the> issue from the outset or adapting to the problems in real time, students say the instructor mostly tried to continue with her original format.”


As a seasoned instructional designer, I have been in this situation and done the same thing. I follow good instructional design practice – alignment of objectives, activities and assessments along with development of relevant supporting materials. My entire course is designed when the semester begins, as a rule, and I don’t change the design. I live with it and make changes at the end of the course after feedback.  I am accustomed to a week of orientation in the course followed by a grading period, and then student confidence blossoming and the design working swimmingly. If there is a glitch, we live through it because the rest of the course structure is strong enough that the glitch can be overcome.

I have seen sticking with initial design succeed more than it failed in my 15 years of designing online classes. Early on I experimented with changing design in mid-class, and I saw the kind of chaos that it caused. I could see myself doing what this instructor did. I could see myself thinking – it’s just a glitch, and when we use technology we will have glitches. The students just need to power through.

I can’t count the number of times I was working with students in a computer lab and software suddenly quit because of some conflict. I would smile reassuringly and say – but when you create this the next time, it will be so much easier – because now you’ve been through the process! And always remember – CTRL-S. This is the nature of being a teacher of technology. When the unexpected happens, we use it as a lesson in persistence, because often there is no other avenue. But in an experimental and open environment, as the eyes of the world are upon us, we might need to be more aware of the way our training and prior experience might be interfering with our judgement.

If that is the case – accreditation standards and instructional design practices might have to do a little back-flipping when we are dealing with credit seeking and non-credit seeking students working in a class together. If the point of a cMOOC is to find a point of interest and expand on that in a natural group environment, we might just have to step back after the learning occurred and describe which objectives were reached, rather than prescribing the objectives at the outset. (BLASPHEMY!) One way to differentiate to students is to provide a menu of choices so that they can choose the activity most appropriate to them. Perhaps in the cMOOC we need a menu of standards that students can choose to meet. All students need not meet the same standard – but they can meet those appropriate to them – their goals and their situation. Wow – I bet NCATE would have a ball with that. Still – the whole of higher ed (including Schools of Education) will  have to learn to adjust to this connectivist phenomenon.

Glitches do happen in technology use and in teaching with technology. But those of us who are used to rigid standards and stringent instructional design for captive audiences in a predictable CMS need to adjust our attitudes a bit where the MOOC is concerned. We’ve got to be on top of things and responsive to student confusion and concerns.  Online ed is out of the box and if one support structure isn’t working we need to feel comfortable quickly moving to Plan B. And if our same time-tested ways of online facilitation (which seemed so novel only 2 years ago) aren’t yielding rewards, we have to try something else. The cool thing is – we’re inventors again!

Onward and upward.


2 responses to Instructional Design and the #MOOC: the danger of not knowing what we don’t know

  1. Can’t mooc an omellette without breaking some eggs.

    I’m so sorry there were just so many puns on this search that I couldn’t resist:

    My favorite: #fauxmooc

    I found this blog post to be interesting, as linked to in the gigaom article:

    I think the take-away here is that you have to be flexible, with levels of backup plans, when it comes to the creation of the community phase of the online course. Who hasn’t tried to teach something involving technology that worked fine when only a few people tried it out and then when scaled it fails? Tthe big M in MOOC amplifies that scaling way beyond a typical class size. I think after the community is somewhat established, and everyone is connected to a couple of people (buddy system?) I think failures here and there would be immensely instructive, especially in a course about how to build a MOOC.

    As the wise man said, “It’s only a failure if you don’t learn from it.”

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