Massive online technology failure: it can happen here

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Even universities with great strength in technology and significant staff resources are challenged to support innovative technology implementation and usage on the scale of the MOOC. A recent event at the Georgia Institute of Technology is instructive.

In late January 2013, Georgia Tech offered the MOOC Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application, taught by Fatimah Wirth, and hosted by Coursera. This course was intended to teach participants how to provide effective online learning with an emphasis on mastering the technologies involved in creating and delivering online courses and managing the issues engendered in this environment. The course description states clearly what would be learned: “This is an introductory course on the fundamentals of online education. You will learn how to convert your face-to-face class into a robust online course based on theory and practice.”

The course description goes on to say, “In this course you will learn about the fundamentals of online education. The emphasis will be on planning and application. In the planning phase, you will explore online learning pedagogy, online course design, privacy and copyright issues, online assessments, managing an online class, web tools and Learning Management Systems. In the application phase, you will create online learning materials. The final project for the course will consist of you building an online course based on everything that you learned and created in the course.”

More than 40,000 participants enrolled. Less than a week after the start, the course was shut down due to technical failure. As of March 2013, it was still unavailable.

Officials from Coursera and Georgia Tech confirmed that the technology facilitating small group discussion—Google Docs—had failed. Richard DeMillo, the director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, said in a subsequent article in Inside Higher Ed (“Why the Online Ed MOOC Didn’t Work”) that support staff had not anticipated “any insurmountable problems” with the technology, going on to say that there “wasn’t enough time for his staff to test the small group discussion features of Google Docs.” Students who registered for the course responded with “a mixture of anger and humor to the implosion of the course, tweeting  “Fundamentals of Online Education’ MOOC, broke down in the first week. Cue scathing declarations of symbolism.”  DeMillo went on to stress the importance of experimentation: “If we tell people to just do safe things, we’ll stifle innovation.” [1] In the same article, Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, said the decision to experiment with Google Docs for the small group discussion component of the course “didn’t work well enough,” despite being “really innovative.” He provided assurances that Coursera will continue to develop quality control procedures that can be used before future course launches. He added that he was “proud we let instructors experiment with different formats.”[2]

All of this is reasonable from the perspective of Coursera, a Silicon Valley startup experimenting with Higher Education technology ventures. Frankly, it is even understandable from the perspective of Georgia Tech, an institute with the stated mission to be “distinguished by its commitment to improving the human condition through advanced science and technology.” These are the organizations and institutions that should be pushing the boundaries in just this manner. We rely on them to do just that. It is unclear, however, whether course participants not formally part of the in Georgia Tech community are as committed to being a part of the experiment in real time.

To be fair, while the 40,000-plus registration numbers are impressive and have shock value, we know that the number of MOOC registrants is orders of magnitude greater than the number who actually complete these courses. Nevertheless, even with the most ruthless calculation, based on statistics we have for MOOC course completion, over one thousand participants would likely have seen the course through to completion, had there been no technology failure. One thousand students is a big cohort of learners in a single course and the fact remains that the course was cancelled as a result of admittedly incomplete planning and testing by both vendor and institution. While there is value in experimentation, most students would probably prefer that it not occur on their time.

[1] Jaschik, “Why the Online Ed MOOC Didn’t Work.”

[2] Ibid.



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