Updates below

In a bizarre coincidence, when I opened the book to scan the contents I found myself looking at the section about sharks.  In particular, “surviving if you are in a raft and you sight sharks—”… I wonder if anyone would be interested in using this as a model for an edtech field manual for surviving the Higher Ed apocalypse.

Jim Groom,”Survival: the manual” July 7 2014

Thanks to Jim Groom, I’ve been thinking about Jaws in this plainly bizarre week in the short history of commercial MOOCs. For all its singular qualities, and for all the symbolic load placed on it by film theorists, Jaws is at heart an ordinary mystery: something unexpected and unexplained happens, someone goes missing, and everyone else spends the movie piecing together clues, disputing priorities, and dealing with what comes next.

But there’s a small scene in the middle that often gets forgotten, where two kids prank the holiday crowds at the beach with a cardboard fin—and in doing this set up the perfect opportunity for the real shark to glide in to calm water, unnoticed by everyone until it’s too late.

This week’s edtech weirdness had both mystery and something like a distracting prank, involving a MOOC in which the professor was yanked from view, then bobbed up again briefly, before vanishing again. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a maths lecturer from the University of Zurich, put up a three-week course: “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required” (#massiveteaching) through Coursera. The landing pages raise questions about the Coursera approval pathway and standards: two weeks of short RSA Animate style videos, and a final week where students will do more or less whatever they like in an “Experiment Area”. Dehaye is likeable, clear and thoughtful about his topic, but the videos aren’t elite brand rocket science—certainly, nothing that an informed and curious teacher in the office next door to you couldn’t have thought up.

And that should have been the first clue, I think. The course goal is “personal growth”, for which—thankfully—no certificate is offered, and the content is quite vague: “‘Readings’ will come naturally during the course as basis for discussion. … In the first week, we will provide a short summary of proposed content of the course. The content of the later weeks will be decided on by the students, and should cover the proposed content and more.”

But after the first week some or all of the content was deleted, and then Dehaye was himself removed, leaving enigmatic clues on Twitter, some participation in Metafilter discussions, some blog comments here and there (including on George Siemens’ blog), and a deleted Etherpad document that he wrote to explain his actions.

MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it. I am in a real bind. I want to fight scientifically for the idea, yet teach, and I have signed contracts, which no one asks me about. If you ask me something, I can tell you where to look for the information. My plan becomes to flip the tables. I want to “break out” and forge an identity outside of the course, on Twitter, because I realize this is the only way for me to fight for this identity, engage with my students, and those big shots all simultaneously (journalists, educational analytics people, etc).  … Meanwhile I want everyone to organize their own learning, which I know is happening by looking a bit around. Some people don’t like my course, which is fine. It’s your choice, that’s part of the point. Still, I get lots of emails from coursera asking what is going on. A lot of pressure from them now. They are confused just like you were, and I intended to confuse them even more because they were not ready to challenge their own pedagogical practices fast enough, judging from past experience.

After blogger Apostolos K pointed out that these strange goings-on hadn’t attracted much coverage, and George Siemens wrote “Something Weird is Happening at Coursera“, the story was quickly picked up. Carl Straumsheim treated it as “The Mystery of the Missing MOOC” for Inside Higher Ed; Steve Kolowich covered it for The Chronicle first as a mystery (“In a MOOC Mystery, a Course Suddenly Vanishes“) and then as an experiment (“University of Zurich Says Professor Deleted MOOC to Raise Student Engagement“). Jonathan Rees had two goes at it, both worth reading: “The worst of the best of the best” on his own blog, and “Even super professors deserve academic freedom” for The Academe Blog. Rolin Moe, whose MOOC blog is touchingly subtitled “Debating, debriefing and defining the learning trend of 2012-“, wrote it up as “Dr Famous is Missing“.

By the end of the week, opinions diverged. Yesterday Michael Gallagher argued in a beautiful post that to exploit students in a research project raises questions of trust that can’t be overlooked even if the intent is to criticise (“Teaching vs. research and MOOC brouhahas“); today George Siemens congratulated Dehaye on starting a conversation about our vulnerability to commercial data mining by companies like Coursera.

I’m still absorbed by the freakishly odd coincidence of Dehaye’s co-authored take on a probability problem that’s apparently well known to mathematicians, involving 100 Prisoners And A Lightbulb, with George Siemens’ July 5 post (published just before all this turned into a thing) on the latent knowledge in any class, involving 100 learners in a room. This is Siemens, but could be Dehaye:

The knowledge and creative capacity of any class is stunning. Unfortunately, this knowledge is latent as the system has been architected, much like a dictatorship, to give control to one person. In many cases, students have become so accustomed to being “taught” that they are often unable, at first, to share their knowledge capacity. This is an experience that I have had in every MOOC that I’ve taught. The emphasis in MOOCs that I’ve been involved with is always on learners taking control, learners joining a network, or learners becoming creators. In a Pavolovian sense, many learners find this process disorienting and uninviting. We have been taught, after a decade+ of formal schooling, to behave and act a certain way. When someone encourages a departure from those methods, the first response is confusion, distrust or reluctance.

I’ll call my theory of knowledge and learning “100 people in a room”. If we put 100 people in a room, the latent knowledge capacity of that room in enormous. Everyone in this room has different life experiences, hobbies, interests, and knowledge. We could teach each other math, physics, calculus. We could teach poetry, different languages, and political theory. The knowledge is there, but it is disconnected and latent. Much of that knowledge is latent for two reasons: 1) We don’t know what others know, 2) connections aren’t made because we are not able with our current technologies to enable everyone to speak and be heard.

At the moment, I’m not sure that we know enough to be sure what the plan was with #massiveteaching. So I’m keeping an open mind to the possibility that what looked like a prank was an attempt to start a different conversation—including, and perhaps especially, with students—about the risks of corporate data mining and the lessons from Google advertisements or Facebook’s experiments with emotional manipulation. The fact that it didn’t work smoothly, and might make Coursera much more twitchy about allowing experimental course design in the future, shouldn’t necessarily be the measure by which it’s finally judged.

Meanwhile let’s keep one eye on the ocean where the real sharks are. As ever, the timely counsel in confusing times is from Jim Groom, who seems to me to be looking in the right direction:

I don’t know what it is, but Sharks remind me we are deeply vulnerable always.

Me too.


People are still writing about this. Two very good posts today:

According to Apostolos K, Coursera/U Zurich have resumed the course without Paul-Olivier Dehaye, which seems to me a reasonably complicated thing to do if the whole designed purpose of the enterprise originates with him. It’s a bit like the Mayor of Amity Island putting on the cardboard fin to prove that there’s no shark.

15 Responses

  • Pat Lockley


    Thanks for this.

    Think this topic has worn me out. Ed tech is really starting to confuse me. I find it weird, perhaps beyond weird at how people seem to keep their arguments in tupperware and stick them in the microwave when it suits.

    Twice this last fortnight I’ve seen the leading lights of UK e-learning (Professors) spread clearly demonstrable falsehoods (could I avoid saying lie anymore?) about Coursera without a second thought for it. I really don’t get why. Then people saying Coursera lacks quality approval – and god have I tweeted that it has it – again I don’t get why (I appreciate I talk crap, and tweet cat pics a lot, but still). It feels like there is a rapid polarising them and us in edtech, and any blow against the other is seen as good, even if it lacks any rigour. Like watching two drunks fight in a bar. You don’t really take sides as it isn’t really something that should happen anyways.

    Which I guess is my take on the shark. We say “shark attack”, but do we attack Sheep when we eat lamb, do we attack cows when we have a burger? No, but when a shark eats us, it some how becomes an attack. A shark is just hungry, I doubt it kills for fun, I doubt it has some greater agenda of revenge.

    Do I think Coursera is a shark, no, at best it is a Remora (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remora), but with the right words, anything can become a threat. But overplay the threat, and it stops being a shark, it starts being a wolf. But if we demonise our threats and don’t check our own demonic privilege, then will hang from hooks on jettys too.

  • I think your point, Pat, about the readiness to see anything as a blow against the other is spot on.

    This is why what interests me most about Jaws isn’t the shark (since 1975 that poor old contraption has had to do duty as a metaphor for Watergate, Vietnam, feminism, the crisis in masculinity … on it goes) but the community itself. With its seasonal livelihood at risk, the folk of Amity Island spend quite a bit of the movie in a prisoners’ dilemma of their own, sorting out the level of risk they’re prepared to entertain in return for profit—whether from ignoring this disruptive fish, or from tackling it.

    Somewhere in the middle of all this are the beach going crowds, who have to be hustled into the water by the Mayor in a cheap suit. We know they’re being exploited, and at some level they know it too.

    This is a movie full of told-you-so recriminations, especially about people exposed to risk from which they should have been protected. Into it swim two kids with a fin. The movie doesn’t ask what they were doing, because their function really is to trip the scene with the next big money shot. But they interest me because they make us think about how intentions and consequences can go awry when people try to get other people to have a look at themselves.

    Right at the moment I’m finding it quite a satisfactory metaphor, and that might just be that I feel very unsure that we have all the details about what actually happened. But to get back to your point, I don’t this have an obvious shark. My money would either be on Facebook/internet.org’s nasty loss leader strategy to hook the developing world on data plans; or the way Blackboard just keep munching their way around the edtech ocean. Both of these seem signs of a reasonably sized carnivore in the pone.

    And then there’s Coursera’s massive conflict of interest in supplying educational opportunity in return for a poorly disclosed interest in vast heaps of learner activity data. Chomp.

    • Pat Lockley

      Two things

      Let’s say the high water mark is some neoliberal metaphor.

      The fish per say isn’t disruptive. The beach is the metaphor. This idyll of perfection, this amazing beautiful utopia. We, as godly-sinless-blame-apportioners believe we have it all. Then bang, this – to us – sudden, compartmentalised horror smashes through our perfection? And we, us, have to make it evil, because it is not a shark attack, it is an attack to our integrity and vision of perfection.

      So why isn’t the fish disruptive, because before we claimed perfection, it would still eat us, it would just eat us and we’d accept it like being stampeded by buffalo would be a risk. The creation of the utopia created a myth, a disruption in truth. The shark is just honest. It is a reality check.

      Is Coursera that different t UK and Australian Unis fighting over Asia? They, like the shark are on a turf we thought we owned. And worse, people might prefer Coursera. The carnivore could easily be the rich global north needing meat and the global south losing forest for palm oil and plantations.

      So why defend anyone – at least Coursera are doing it in public, at least their skin is in the game. They are tennis players in the water swimming. The rest of us?

  • Pat Lockley

    Re the comment from Coursera

    “Unfortunately, Prof. Dehaye had not previously informed Coursera of this part of his pedagocial approach: Deleting course material is not compatible with Coursera’s course concept, where students all over the globe decide when they want to watch a particular course video. Prof. Dehaye’s course included experimental teaching aspects which led to further confusion among students.”

    We on our Coursera MOOC choose when videos are released. We have an admin panel on which we can control the release date. Once released you’d not withdraw it, but you could. Nothing to stop you. I accidentally deleted all of week three last week.

    • Phemie Wright

      Firstly…wow…did I miss a big week or what (frankly I’ve missed a whole semester worth of ed tech living…my schedule has got to change!).
      Secondly. ..The shark analogies that continued in the comments went well beyond where my brain could keep going with it so I can’t respond to them…
      Thirdly, Im not sure I agree with Siemens suggesting that he was the first to define this idea…. or secondly that his 2 reasons are the only number of reasons why we don’t “teach each other” (starting with how about WE don’t know what we know or our ability/validity to teach it)…but perhaps that’s for me to take up with him on HIS blog…
      and lastly. ..The topic at hand…is it just me or does this kind of feel like an idea…that kind of didn’t work the way it was expected/prepared or perhaps had some gaps between concept and delivery…then he just decided to delete
      /can the whole thing
      (maybe not many students)…this accidently got coverage…and the lecturer then felt the need to defend or define the decision. ..In a way that made it sound like it was “all on purpose”..but maybe it actually wasn’t? Or am I just being cynical!
      FYI thanks Kate as always for keeping me in the loop! !

  • Jason H

    From a distance it looks to me like he had some internal “scope creep”, and tried to ad-lib new ideas as he went, things that turned out not to jive with his original ideas. You can see him starting to “speed-wobble” internally, and his attempts to get it under control just made things worse, until he did the right thing and detached from the process altogether. Learning about yourself in real-time sometimes ain’t pretty, for a professor even less so. I hope he’s okay and does some reflecting, and comes back to tell us what *he* learned from the experience, which may be the real educational value in this particular case.

    • Wanted to come back to this comment, which was helpful when I read it. There definitely was a scope creep, that I felt was partly due to the format. If you teach a MOOC on Coursera partly about Coursera, well, you will learn as you go.

      I did learn a lot about myself out of this. Some of it wasn’t pretty, some of it was challenging, some of it was good.

  • Kate, Thank you for sharing such a thought-provoking post. When people with more power do crazy, unjust, absurd things, they can go on. When someone with less power does creative things, they get in trouble. Luckily, power works in more complex ways than powerful but stupid people think, and it’s is rarely a zero sum game. In this case, what nightmare a mere professor caused for the Goliath of online education!

    Similarly, while the internet has been a blessing in some ways for the altruism-peddling, colonial-minded, ignorant-about-the-world “star” professors in North America and Europe, it has been an equally effective medium for them to announce their ignorance to millions of people across the world who can now find out how stupid they are. I mean how many of these “stars” still had been just using lectures and exams in their Ivy Leagues classrooms until MOOCs came along? Wow!

    And thanks to Pat Lockley for a spot on comment on the global south being a turf for power players from up north. International higher education had always been a tough-to-rule colonial space, but now it has “apparently” become a new and free continent to “develop.” New explorers are getting undue advantage with their steam engines. However, as I hope they will soon find out, they will blow themselves up along with their fancy ships in the middle of the oceans too far from home. When students around the world give the star professors more and more collective yawn and start watching better YouTube videos, the world of educators around the world will have to continue to do the real work of educating their own students on the ground, with an understanding of their own contexts, their own needs and challenges. And as that process goes back to normal, I am hoping that educators on the ground will have gained from the increased sharing of ideas with other educators across the world … in the aftermath of massively stupid ships crashing on foreign shores around the world. I am one of those educators who is grateful to Coursera and the likes. I think better about education in and across contexts than I used to 2-3 years ago.

    • Feel free to add more people to your list of “””ignorant-about-the-world “star” professors in North America and Europe, [who have found in MOOCs] an equally effective medium for them to announce their ignorance to millions of people across the world”””.

      There are many many many…

  • FYI Kate, scuse e-speak on previous comment…was on my mobile… wont do that again!

  • Completely understand! Have tidied it up, but I knew it was you on your mobile out in the red dirt landscape somewhere. Why autocorrect prefers if to of is one of life’s most unsolved mysteries! Lovely to see you here.

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