It’s been great to feel supported and people reaching out to make sure I’m doing okay. It was my first experience with global worldwide Internet heat wrath, and it was very difficult. I will admit. My family paid a price for it. I paid a price, but I feel much better being amongst colleagues.

Jeff Hancock, co-author of the Facebook Emotions Study,  Microsoft Research Faculty Summit special session (transcript: Mary L Gray)

Remember #massiveteaching? The Coursera MOOC in which the actions of the instructor seemed strange to many? Probably not. Social media and edtech journalism have churned on for another few weeks, strange and terrible things have happened in the world, and the story has been buried under the next truckload of news and opinion landfill, right alongside the story of #foemooc and those few other cases where a MOOC went off piste.

By the time the story was picked up by higher education media, it had stabilised around the question of human research ethics, and got tangled up with the controversy surrounding the just-published Facebook Emotions Study. The consensus settled: Paul-Olivier Dehaye had also been engaged in improper experimentation on students without their knowledge or consent. And from there it snowballed, not just into what had happened, but why. He was an ego-driven child, a manipulator, an abuser of trust, a novice who hadn’t done his homework, a saboteur, a jerk, a punk.

Dehaye’s few statements didn’t clear anything up, and it helped even less when he said nothing. People who were already appalled by Facebook, but couldn’t get hold of Mark Zuckerberg to shake by the ears, suddenly had a far less powerful figure—and seemingly erratic communicator—to hold up as the test case for stupid.

The Coursera factor contributed. Their trumpeting about super professors and elite institutions has made us all very weary of the celebrity academic, and has introduced a fair game attitude to what Chuck Severance rightly calls anti-MOOC schadenfreude. Surely when someone accepts the reputational coin and then drops it in public, we get to exercise our indignation in a general way, even if we don’t know the facts entirely?

This is the swamp that we’ve all been dragged into by MOOCcorp. We’ve been hustled along by their entrepreneurial haste to create new educational markets, without thinking through the professional and personal risks facing ordinary university teachers who step in front of a global class of thousands. Many of them have not been celebrities at all, even in their own disciplines; they’re not chosen on the basis of experience in online teaching, but because they work at high ranking institutions.

Some have been great at it; some have left their audiences cold. Some have risen to the challenge of negative feedback in a way that should make us all blush. All of them have been put through the mincer of public opinion on their voice, their clothes, their teaching styles, their syllabus, their expertise. They’ve been upvoted and dumped on and blogged about, often by an audience of their peers.

And they’ve survived all this while delivering to MOOCcorp the real product: big fat research datasets with big fat commercial value. This week Gregor Kennedy, Pro Vice Chancellor of Educational Innovation at the University of Melbourne (also a Coursera partner), described this as “incredibly helpful”, without a blush:

Learning analytics use the digital data trails that students leave in online learning environments to develop an understanding of students’ learning processes. Every video watched, quiz answered and comment posted can be tracked, mined and analysed to better understand how students are learning online. Researchers are able to capitalise on the big data sets generated by tens of thousands of MOOC students to uncover productive and unproductive patterns of learning behaviour.

These patterns can be related to a range of other variables such as students’ socio-economic or cultural background, their previous education and prior knowledge, and their motivation to study. They can also be used to predict when students will drop out, whether they will pass the course, or whether they will get a high distinction.

OK then. Clearly the prospect of opportunistic and experimental research using student data without any clear boundaries around aims or potential use (“can be related to … students’ socio-economic or cultural background”), and deploying the lowest possible standard of informed consent, isn’t always a problem—or we’d be blogging up a storm about Gregor Kennedy.

But we’re not, because we have already rolled on this one. We know about the algorithms that recommend books, nudge us towards friends, and parse our interests into a grammar of decision-making potential. We understand that we’ve left our digital fingerprints on everything, and concede that students must have too, so we might as well collect them. This means that MOOCs are already capitalising on the free gift of huge data sets, while privacy and ethics experts are still drafting recommendations for good practice.

Paul-Olivier Dehaye was also pursuing these questions. Watching one of his Coursera office hours I learned that the experiment he talked about wasn’t about pulling stunts to see how students would react, but something much more prosaic: developing criteria for open badges that would reflect peer collaboration across platforms as well as within. Sure, he says “experiment” a lot when he could simply say “test” and cause much less fuss; but his views on issues that MOOCs have introduced to traditional higher education are widely shared. In particular, although he’s a MOOC supporter in a general sense, he’s not alone in recognising the problem that will have to be addressed in order to make MOOCs sustainable over time:

It is in some ways a struggle of power between different institutions, between the professor, between the school, and between the platform itself. … and if you want I am fighting for the professor here, to make sure the professor has a space in this fight.

I went through the whole two hours, and found no evidence of someone trying either to sabotage or proselytise for particular modes of online learning, or planning to play any kind of trick. What he was testing was straightforwardly technical, aimed at helping learners manage their own data across multiple open online platforms. In particular, I was interested in his ideas about using badges to credit the practices of mutual care and support that really help online communities work, and which are often achieved away from the chaotic environment of MOOC forums, and are lost to analytic reach. So I can’t imagine Coursera being thrilled with any of this—or his home institution being particularly interested—but these principles shouldn’t set anyone’s hair on fire.

Why did he bail on the course? This is something only he can answer. Coursera and his home institution, with all the advantages of professional PR and ready access to educational media, moved swiftly to put out their version of what happened, and the course continued without him. We can’t be surprised at this; universities all over the place are fortifying their brands against risk, especially on social media. But we can be concerned, as it seems that when two powerful institutions are involved, it’s very unclear who takes care of the individual who was working on their behalf.

So this leaves the rest of us, as colleagues to whom he might have been able to turn for support. At the time I raised some of my concerns with Maha Bali, who was also writing about this. Social media in general, and MOOCs in particular, have caught us all without a considered standard for responding when our academic colleagues get into difficulty in public forums. This is what makes Twitter so painful, so much of the time. It’s what makes us come off as judgmental and cliquey when we’re operating within our existing networks, and careless with the professional and personal consequences of the way we talk about others.

George Siemens, who was one of the few who wrote sympathetically about Paul-Olivier Dehaye, congratulated him for starting a conversation that we need to have about MOOCs. I’m late to it, but I’m saying the same—not only for starting a conversation, but for surviving its aftermath. I’m really delighted to see that he’s writing a blog, and is active again on Twitter, and I hope that this time he feels that he’s amongst colleagues.

8 Responses

  • Pat Lockley

    I think it sums it up really, as the surprise we experience that we shoot first and maybe ask questions if it suits us.

    I am not surprised to the people linked to above using those terms – I am loathe to be as prescriptive as to say if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all – but there is an incessant need to pass comment and judgement, and perhaps the MOOC super professor status seems to allow or permit it, and we see it as reclaiming status as equal

    It just feels a bit tiring to see an intellgensia which seems so amoral or sociopathic when it comes to emotion – when single handedly lambasting MOOCs for providing no contact with students, but then using twitter to criticise people knowing they may read it. It feels hugely contradictory.

    But I think ed tech will realise it has a few charlatans soon, your southern UK friend being one of them (not to link these issues, but I see common ground)

    • Hi Pat, I’m so glad you commented as it was the fact that you reached out to the instructor in #foemooc that really stayed with me. It strikes me that this is something we could all hope for–collegiality that goes beyond the person in the office next door.

      And yes, I think there’s a connection and a conflict in relation to the other situation, which at the very least was a deliberate hoax for laughs. But the caution in both cases is that what’s said online stays there and sticks to someone’s reputation. When that someone is well established or a celebrity academic or what have you, it can still hurt.

      But when that someone is at the beginning of their career, I think we all have to ask whether we want our hasty judgments seriously to hold someone back in a future job search. I’d want to be entirely sure they had done something worth that kind of ineradicable blot before contributing to it.

      • Pat Lockley

        What was public then, is not what is public now
        Has fame broken the discourse?
        Does a lack of class show human nature isn’t what we thought it was

  • Kate – it’s always a pleasure to read your posts, whether I fully agree or not. You have quite a talent.

    On this one, I am not not a fan of judging someone as a person based on a specific action, and there is certainly a factor of the non-personal nature of social media that must be considered. In this I also am glad that Paul-Olivier Dehaye survived the onslaught and is now blogging. If your main point is about online lynch mobs going after people viciously, then I am in agreement.

    However, that is not all the same as judging Dehaye’s actions in #massiveteaching. Whether or not he had good intentions, the results included betraying the trust of students being apparently self-centered. Unless I’m missing something, any conversations about managing learner data across multiple platforms are not coming from the students, er, registrants for his course. His stunt (and that is how it appears to me) did cause a lot of blog commentary – much of it overly judgmental in an ad hominen manner – but not in a way that justified the methods.

    I wish Dehaye well, and I think the topic you heard in the office hours is worth discussing, but that not the same thing as evaluating what happened with the actual MOOC. I think commentary on the actions / result of such a public incident have not been premature.

  • Hi Phil, lovely to see you here.

    I’m sorry I’m late to reply, but I’ve been thinking about your comment quite a bit. First, I think there’s an issue that none of us have quite addressed, which is the status of “students” in a course like this. I’m going to try to address that separately (partly because I need to write a post for connected courses, which I’m going to trail for a while — and given my less than stellar track record as a mood “student” it may not be much of a diversion!).

    But I also wanted to get back to the evidence that what happened was self-centred, which I don’t think is all that strong. That is, the interpretation of some of the things that were said and done fixed on that explanation, and then subsequent events appeared to confirm it. But looking back, this reveals something that’s always a flaw in crowdsourced interpretation, in relation to the rolling confirmation of bias. So I’m not sure at all that we know what the methods were, or whose they were, given that there were two powerful decision-making institutions also involved.

    From the office hour conversation I listened to, the question of badges and their criteria was being very openly discussed with the participants who were present, who were going to build the criteria themselves and then take that openly back into the course forums. This was about the point where I started to think that whatever had happened wasn’t part of a master plan to conceal or confuse, and wondered at what point the popular commentary had become so confident that it was on the right track. So I think in a funny way that the lasting lesson was the one we promote to students: hypothesis isn’t a substitute for research, and if you can’t find the answer, that isn’t a reason to guess.

  • Dave Gerlach

    Dehaye wanted to get public attention for boosting his somewhat stalled academic career. His concerns were not new at all, so no reason to celebrate him has a hero. Dehaye came through as an egotistical guy not well prepared for the second week of the course and acting irrationally and psychotically.

    • Pat Lockley

      Any citations for this?
      Public attention?
      Stalled career?
      Poorly prepared?

  • Hi Dave, welcome.

    This is the thing for me: I’ve heard these kinds of comments many times around an academic campus, and even in hiring committees, where the reputation of an individual gets hashed out on the basis of all sorts of things—some of which wouldn’t meet the test of research rigour that we tell students is vital in a professional scholarly career. There’s a whole lot of “Oh, I know this guy, there’s a thing, and of course you can tell from his CV that … X, Y and Z”

    It’s the sort function of professional gossip, which we sometimes euphemistically call “networking”, and it’s certainly not new.

    But when this migrates online, it stays and stays, and comes up in search terms, all without being tested, and sometimes without right of reply. We’re seeing so many cases at the moment of academics who are required by their institutions or their lawyers not to say anything publicly, and the net effect of this (literally) is that what gets said about them stands in their place.

    This is a dispute over social media as a reputational territory for higher education, and it seems to me at the moment that it’s all a bit ad hoc.

    My argument is that we need to take this more seriously. If we’re going to support innovation and risk properly we need much more than overcapitalised platforms—unless MOOCs really are just textbooks, they’re going to need instructors, and those instructors should probably start to ask who has their back if they make a mistake. Miscalculations happen all the time in face to face education, as do egotistical decisions, and terrible communication—but none of these result in the kind of reputational damage that MOOC instructors will experience.

    The more I’ve thought about the instructor problem, the more it seems to be part of the overall conservative tendencies in MOOC pedagogy. As a profession we need to think about where we stand in this.


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