More growing pains for Coursera: in another slip-up, professor departs mid-course

For the second time in less than a month, an online course on Coursera has hit a stumbling block.

This weekend, the professor of a ten-week course on “Microeconomics for Managers,” offered through the University of California at Irvine Extension program, told students that he would be leaving the class after only its fifth week.

“Because of disagreements over how to best to conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret,” Richard McKenzie, a professor at the University of California at Irvine’s business school, said in an open note to students.

The news comes just two weeks after another slip-up for the startup, in which Coursera suspended an online class (on how to run an online class, no less) after student complaints about technical glitches and problems with the design of the class.

In a statement, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said McKenzie was not “removed” but “elected to reduce his direct interaction with students because he’s finding it a challenging time commitment to serve such a heterogeneous population of students, with different backgrounds and different access to technology and optional course materials.” Koller emphasized that despite his departure, which was first reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the class will continue, led by course managers, including the assistant dean for distance education at UC Irvine.

Professor wasn’t accustomed to large, diverse audience

Gary Matkin, the dean of distance education for UC Irvine, indicated that the issue was related to how McKenzie regarded the class’s more casual students, who no doubt comprised a large contingent in a class of 37,000 people.

“Professor McKenzie is not accustomed (as few are) in teaching university-level material to an open, large, and quite diverse audience including those who were not seriously committed to achieving the learning objectives of the course or who decided not to or could to gain access to supplemental learning materials,” he told GigaOM in a statement.

In the past year, MOOCs (massive open online courses) have been riding high, attracting millions of dollars in venture investment and thousands of online students. But the two recent Coursera incidents highlight that while the model has the potential to bring educational opportunities to millions of people, it’s still new and limited.

As we wrote at the time, the suspended class earlier this month suggested the need for more quality control and oversight, as well as more flexibility on the part of online professors. This latest setback points to a mismatch between what traditional professors may want to create in an online class and what is currently possible.

In several of his open notes to students (which are quite lengthy, indicating the time and consideration he appears to have given the class), McKenzie writes about commitment to the course and standards. He seemed dismayed that more students wouldn’t purchase a recommended textbook and was disappointed in the quality of the Coursera videos.

In class of 37,000, just 2 percent engage in discussion

More tellingly, he wrote that while he was initially impressed to learn that 37,000 students enrolled in the class, he’s learned that “enrollment count is meaningless.” In the first two weeks, less than 40 percent of students logged in to the class and only a fourth of the students had watched a single video lecture. Less than two percent of the students were actively engaged in the discussions, he said.

“I have truly been impressed with many comments that have been posted. However, I have to worry that the value of the course to serious and active students is being undercut by students who are not a part of the course in any meaningful sense,” he wrote in a note to students in January. “I want to encourage the inactive and uninvolved students to get with the program and take the assignments seriously. If not, I suggest the course would be much improved for the serious and active students and for me if the inactive students would go ahead and dropped the course right now.”

Given Matkin’s comments and the school’s decision to continue the course with other leadership, it seems that this was the biggest point of conflict between McKenzie and UC Irvine Extension. And it makes sense that teachers accustomed to smaller courses and an environment in which students have more uniform levels of motivation and commitment may be uncomfortable with a MOOC. While large open online classes can provide access to many more students, in their current form, they can’t demand equal accountability. For teachers like McKenzie (and his supporters in the class, as well as outside of it), accepting the “casually curious”  can be a challenge but others appreciate the MOOC’s precisely for their ability to accommodate students of varying levels of engagement.

What’s surprising to me is that McKenzie didn’t come to the experience more prepared for the high-enrollment-low-engagement reality. In his first time teaching a MOOC, it’s understandable that he’d encounter a few surprises and have to figure things out along the way. But it makes you wonder about how Coursera brings new instructors on board and whether more preparation might be helpful.

This article was updated at 6:40 pm ET with comments from Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller.