design thoughts in the sound and fury of a failed MOOC

News of Coursera’s first failed (or rather suspended) MOOC came across my Yammer feed the other day, and ironically, the topic was “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.”

The criticisms (and defenses) have poured in quickly. Some questioned her credentials, while others chalked it up to MOOCs being a new frontier, and even more others criticizing the MOOC model itself. My favorite comment thus far comes from the Inside Higher Ed article that broke the news:

They've [Coursera] set themselves up for this 
by claiming they are disrupting higher ed when 
in fact they are just doing correspondence courses 
on a grand scale and with fancier technology than 
the old correspondence courses ever could.

To me, this analogy seems flawed and seems to miss the point. Successfully offering courses at this scale is what’s disruptive. But that’s a topic for another day. The comment that actually piqued my interest was one that came from a more local colleague:

I am wondering about the comment "MOOC design 
and traditional online course design are very 
different." But which aspects of the design? I 
imagine some are very much the same.

I wonder too. I’m part curriculum designer in my responsibilities as an instructional designer (like everyone else these days), and I can tell you I’m on the sympathetic side, given how difficult it is to put together and to teach an online course (especially with so many other projects in my queue). It’s not like building an IKEA chair. Knowing all the best pedagogical principles, tools, and design models (which aren’t created equal) does not mean one can create a great course. Those just give you a foundation. What it actually ends up being is a world-building exercise requiring an iterative process of data collection, deep thinking, and revision. It’s a creative effort that also takes risk-taking and a little educated guessing–not to mention a robust method of managing a lot of complex information.

And even if you invest a significant amount of time and energy into every “step” of good course design, the final product isn’t guaranteed hit. You have just given it a better chance than not–especially in an open environment where not every variable can be predicted. You may create a course with a historical enrollment of 35-40 students, but only get 10-15. Or your activities targets freshman and sophomores but the class ends up being mostly seniors and continuing education students. Planning is important, but it’s only half the battle.

Maybe that point is moot because missteps in planning (or there lack of) seem to have led to the downfall of this course, and so I am certainly not defending it. But you can start to see why I think characterizing MOOC design as “different” from traditional course design is an intriguing dichotomy. Design should not be a prescriptive approach that’s constrained in the face of a disruptive innovation; ideally, it’s a way of thinking flexibly and in an innovative way in order to deal with ill-structured problems. Like MOOCs.

I guess this is all to say that the comment being commented on is ambiguous. Is the author talking about design as a process, or is the author just using “design” as a blanket statement to describe the current structure/presentation/etc. of the course? The distinction is an important one when trying to address any criticisms. If it’s the former, I would want to know what he or she sees as the flaws in instructional design models. If it’s the latter (which I’m guessing it is), then I would probably agree that the way a course looks really depends on its context.

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