Pages Navigation Menu

Looking Back at the “Fundamentals of Online Education” Crash

Anyone following MOOC news in early February is well aware of the meltdown of Coursera’s Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,  offered by Fatima Wirth of Georgia Tech. The course began on Monday, January 28 and was shut down five days later. In the week that followed, many bloggers and traditional news outlets reported on the class’s demise, offered explanations, posted obituaries for MOOCs and, frequently, enjoyed the irony that Coursera’s first spectacular failure was an online course on how to design and teach an online course.

by Dan O'Brien via Flickr

by Dan O’Brien via Flickr

Little has been written about FOE since then. But as a participant in the course, I think its three-month anniversary is a good time for review and reflection.

The course

I signed up for FOE because I was planning to develop my own online course. I had successfully completed a Coursera MOOC the previous fall (“Writing in Sciences” – my Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction is tacked proudly on my bulletin board), so I had a good sense of how a MOOC worked.

Unfortunately, the course had problems from the start. A number of participants have laid out the problems with the course (these three commentaries are excellent), but the most visible problem was with groups. The instructor made it clear that small group discussions would be important to the class, and she asked the 41,000 participants to split up into groups of 20 by signing up on a Google Docs spreadsheet.

Unfortunately, a Google spreadsheet can handle a maximum of 50 simultaneous editors, and the spreadsheet crashed because of the volume. The instructor went to Plan B: she asked us to organize ourselves into groups on Coursera’s built-in discussion forums, again limiting ourselves to 20 per group.

In the meantime, we were asked to complete our first week’s work, which consisted of watching video lectures from the instructor, reading articles on the theory and practice of online and adult education and commenting on the videos and readings. To receive credit, we were required to post our comments to a dropbox, and then repost them to our group’s discussion forum.

My experience

I visited the FOE site on the morning the course began, but Google Docs had crashed before I could join a group. I then tried to join three different forum-based groups I thought I’d be interested in, based on the group names, but all were full. I finally joined a general group focused on Higher Education. The participant who had created the group offered to act as our moderator.

Joining was as simple as posting to the thread and saying you wanted to join, so the group filled up very quickly. After 33 people had joined, someone in the group posted the names of all 33 of us, and pointed out that we were beyond full. Still, another 18 people joined within a few hours, and, eventually, 61 people joined our group.

In the meantime, I did my homework, good student that I am. We were required to post our comments to three different discussion threads. Someone from my group (the same person who had posted the list of 33 group members) had set up our three discussion threads, which I found only after searching for our group name in the discussion search box.

I posted my replies, as did a few other people. There were very few other responses, which I found strange, given the large number of people in our group. So I went back to the initial group sign-up thread, and posted the links for the three discussion threads, hoping people would go back to our group’s “home page” and see them. Unfortunately, the course was shut down soon thereafter.

In all, of the 61 people in my group, about six of us were active participants: the moderator, the man who set up our discussion threads, and three others who had joined me in discussing the videos and readings. Would more have been active if the situation had not been so crazy? Maybe. It was, after all, pretty hard to find the discussions, let alone join a group. (See Adam Heidebrink’s spot-on assessment of the problems with Coursera’s Discussion Forums.)

Perhaps group members would have found my links and joined our conversation. At the same time, though, 6 out of 61 is roughly in line with the percentage of students who ultimately earn a Statement of Accomplishment, so maybe the rest would have happily lurked.

The Aftermath

After FOE was suspended, many commenters blamed the professor for the course’s failure, and rightly so. While the first week’s readings were useful, the course was not well planned. The 50 editor limit for Google Docs should have been thought out.

Nor did it offer a model for the kind of teaching that the videos and readings encouraged. The quizzes, for example, tested our recall of content, something one of the readings told us not to do.

Still, with three months’ hindsight, I think the course’s failure highlights an essential tension in MOOCs. On the one hand, the FOE instructor was criticized for her poor course design, her presentation and her unclear instructions. On the other hand, MOOCs are touted as student-centric, minimizing the role of the teacher and relying on a crowd-sourced model of knowledge generation.

Both Coursera’s Pedagogy Statement and the FOE course’s emphasis on group work would seem to back this up. If the course had been allowed to continue, would we have been able to figure things out on our own and overcome the instructor’s weaknesses? I think so – at least for the six of us in my group who were active from the start.

Immediately after the shutdown, some predicted that this would begin the slow death of MOOCs. That clearly hasn’t happened. Others predicted it would hurt Georgia Tech. That hasn’t happened either; they still have courses on the books for the spring and summer. As for the course itself? Despite the instructor characterizing the shutdown as “temporary,” and despite Georgia Tech saying the course could be back “in a matter of days,” the Fundamentals of Online Education page, with Fatimah Wirth as the instructor, is still in date TBA mode.

The effect on me has been somewhat mixed. The experience definitely put the brakes on my own participation in MOOCs. I have started three Coursera MOOCs since FOE, and have not finished any of them, despite my plans to collect more Statements of Accomplishment. Of the four I had signed up for, FOE was the one that most excited me, given my plans to develop and teach online classes of my own. I’m having some motivation problems (though I’m still signed up for a couple more).

But my enthusiasm for teaching online classes has not dampened. I enjoyed the readings (and regret that I didn’t download and save those that were posted). One of the readings required I create an account, and I continue to receive articles from that site almost daily, with excellent practical tips. And many of the online critics of the course wrote not just complaints, but also advice for how to effectively teach online. I have taken that advice to heart as I develop my own classes.

In all, it was not the experience that I had hoped for. But MOOCs are what we make of them – even the failed ones.


Robert McEachern (2 Posts)

I teach writing at a regional public university, where I conduct research on business and technical writing, most recently on the ways social media change the writing process for workplace writers.My own online writing includes a blog devoted to up-to-date information on blood cancers. As a teacher, I am very interested in the ways MOOCs and other digital information sources will affect the classroom, especially the writing classroom, and how they will change the way we deliver information to students.


  1. Thanks for the insights on this. I too had registered for the FOE course but never really got into it enough to witness the crash.

    My takeaways on the experience include: I was pleased that or whomever had the common sense to pull the thing when it was clearly not working. As well, personally, I am not surprised or terribly concerned that something as innovative as trying to organize 40k plus students into small group discussions is not going to be without problems first time out.

    I am more impressed that the subsequent courses I have registered for “e-learning and digital cultures” and “leading strategic innovation” grappled with this issue of creating small group discussions and came up with some good direction. Both sets of instructors solicited and were responsive to student input. The innovation MOOC seemed to hit on a useful model of dual tracks for the same course – one for those who specifically want the small group experience and take responsibility for extra group work and a second group that does the readings, watches the videos, takes the quizzes, and does the minimum requirements.

    I am optimistic about the future of MOOCs or whatever it is they will evolve into

    • It’s reasonable to me that there will be mishaps and growing pains. I wonder at what point, though, it becomes irresponsible to involve large numbers of students in the experiment. I’d be interested to know your perspective on this piece:

      • You raise valide points in the post. I am curious if even was prepared for the large numbers of students that initially enrolled. However, I find that seems to be effectively grappling with the logistical problems.

        I have backed off a good bit on the number of MOOCs I enroll in – simply because these are real college level courses, that require real effort on my part. I say that because based on my more limited participation in MOOCs this spring, I have not found the repeat problems I experienced last fall.

        Conceptually MOOCs have demonstrated that there is a desire for free choice informal learning from a substantive number of folks worldwide. The informal learning component is crossing over to some extent into the formal. The market is there. If or edX do not figure it out, someone else will.

        I take the basic position that no one is forcing me to take the MOOC and at this point, it is not costing me any money. I take the same position on Facebook and Twitter. I appreciate that on a different philosophical level of social and cultural controls over mass communication, free, required, or otherwise, this logic might not hold.

        However, now if I encourage my students or anyone else to consider a MOOC for a particular purpose, I do so with a “here is my experience, this worked for me, it might work for you.” However, if I require my students to enroll in a MOOC or if I am paying for the course, then I expect the class to be as glitch-free and of the same or greater quality as traditional educational models – which have lots of glitches and are sometimes as engaging as watching paint dry.

        I am just now thinking how whenever I develop a course for the first time, I inform students of that fact. I expect that the first time out my course will achieve the essential goals of the course. I solicit student feedback along the way – what worked and what did not work. My courses are always better the second time I teach them. I continue to revise each course every year to not just incorporate new materials, but also more appropriate teaching methods.

        So long as MOOCs develop along the same line, I am comfortable.

    • I think the Innovation MOOC’s division is pretty interesting, and goes back to what I see as the pedagogical tension of MOOCs: the “Sage on the Stage” versus (or “and”) the small group experience. The FOE MOOC required small group participation for a Statement of Accomplishment. Did both tracks in the Innovation MOOC allow for that? Seems like a possible solution, though I can also see some participants complaining that they did more work than others who got the same Statement at the end,especially if MOOCs evolve to become something more formal.

      • The Innovations MOOC offered two different certificates of completion depending on which track you were in – so everyone should be satisfied.