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Georgia Tech and Coursera Try to Recover From MOOC Stumble

When Fatimah Wirth decided to teach a massive open online course about how to run a virtual classroom successfully, she did not expect it to turn into a case study for the opposite.

But after a series of design flaws and technical glitches turned Ms. Wirth’s MOOC, “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,” into an Internet punch line, the instructional designer and her colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology decided on Saturday to suspend the course.

The course got off to a bad start; one student reported that the first e-mail he got from the instructor “was not an introduction to the course per se, nor instructions for getting started, but rather an apology for the technical glitches that were, unbeknownst to me, already occurring.”

Ms. Wirth had tried to use Google Docs to help the course’s 40,000 enrolled students to organize themselves into groups. But that method soon became derailed when various authors began editing the documents. Things continued downhill from there; some students also had problems downloading certain course materials that had been added to the syllabus at the last minute. When the confusion continued, Georgia Tech decided to call a timeout.

The company on Sunday announced that it would reopen the course at an unspecified date. Richard A. DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, told The Chronicle he expected the course would be live again “in a matter of days.”

In the meantime, Coursera is dealing with the backlash against its first aborted MOOC since it began offering the massive courses early last year. This is the first time the company has suspended a course, said Daphne Koller, its co-founder, in an interview. “Given that we’ve launched well over 100 courses, I think that’s a pretty good track record,” she said.

There is still debate about whether MOOCs can replicate the educational experience of a traditional classroom, but in general the large-scale online courses have managed to avoid being panned outright. Udacity, a competing MOOC provider, was forced to cancel a mathematics course last summer due to concerns over quality—but the incident appears not to have significantly damaged that company’s brand.

Still, the false start of Georgia Tech’s online-education MOOC drew ire from some observers.

“While it was made clear from the beginning that the university is still testing the waters for online courses like this one, I feel kind of cheated,” wrote one student on her blog. “Something as fundamental to a course as the access to important learning materials is something that needs to be sorted out in the planning phase, not in the first application phase.”

Ms. Koller said that while Coursera regretted its role in fielding a course that was not ready for prime time, the episode probably will not lead the company to circumscribe the methods of its instructors.

“If we turn out to be overly prescriptive, it might prevent experiments that are successful,” she said, “even if it also prevents experiments that are not successful.”

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