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Professor Leaves a MOOC in Mid-Course in Dispute Over Teaching

Students regularly drop out of massive open online courses before they come to term. For a professor to drop out is less common.

But that is what happened on Saturday in “Microeconomics for Managers,” a MOOC offered by the University of California at Irvine through Coursera. Richard A. McKenzie, an emeritus professor of enterprise and society at the university’s business school, sent a note to his students announcing that he would no longer be teaching the course, which was about to enter its fifth week.

“Because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret,” Mr. McKenzie wrote.

Mr. McKenzie’s departure marks the second debacle for Coursera this month. Another of the company’s courses, “Fundamentals of Online Education,” was suspended indefinitely after technical and design issues made it too dysfunctional to continue. That course has not restarted.

Mr. McKenzie’s microeconomics course, however, will continue—just without him. “The very able course managers have everything they need to post the remaining lectures, course assignments, and discussion problems, week by week, as scheduled,” the professor wrote. “However, I will not be involved.”

Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s founders, said by e-mail that Mr. McKenzie had not been “removed” from his role and that Coursera officials had not been in contact with the professor in recent weeks—suggesting that whatever “disagreements” led to Mr. McKenzie’s resignation had occurred at Irvine.

Gary Matkin, the dean for distance education at Irvine, said the problem had stemmed from Mr. McKenzie’s reluctance to loosen his grip on students who he thought were not learning well in the course.

“In Professor McKenzie’s view, for instance, uninformed or superfluous responses to the questions posed in the discussion forums hobbled the serious students in their learning,” said Mr. Matkin in an e-mail.

Irvine officials, however, “felt that the course was very strong and well designed,” he said, “and that it would, indeed, meet the learning objectives of the large audience, including both those interested only in dipping into the subject and those who were seriously committed” to completing the course.

Ms. Koller said that teaching a MOOC “can, indeed, be a challenge to deal with for someone used to the much more uniform population of a typical university setting.”

At least 37,000 people had registered for the course, according to Mr. McKenzie, although the professor noted in a post on the course’s “announcements” page that “fewer than 2 percent have been actively engaged in discussions.”

Mr. McKenzie did not immediately respond to an e-mail from The Chronicle requesting comment.

But posts from the professor on the course’s “announcements” page suggest that Mr. McKenzie had spent a great deal of time attempting to respond to student feedback—an effort chronicled in the many addendums on “housekeeping issues” appended to his notes on course content.

The professor apparently had faced criticism from students who objected to his decision to assign a textbook that was not available free. Mr. McKenzie also had heard complaints about how much work he assigned.

“I will not give on standards,” wrote Mr. McKenzie in one post, “and you also should not want me to, or else the value of any ‘certification’ won’t be worth the digits it is written with.”

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