‘Star’ Coursera prof stops teaching online course in objection to MOOCs

In an about-face highlighting the ongoing debate surrounding massive open online courses (MOOCs), a professor held up as a “star” in online learning by MOOC providers and the media has decided to cut ties with Coursera.

After reaching more than 40,000 students through his non-credit “Introduction to Sociology” MOOC — and getting the front page treatment in The New York Times — Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier told The Chronicle of Higher Education Tuesday that he will no longer teach his class out of concerns that it could undermine public higher education.

“I think that it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities,” he said. “And I guess that I’m really uncomfortable being part of a movement that’s going to get its revenue in that way. And I also have serious doubts about whether or not using a course like mine in that way would be pedagogically effective.”

The decision reportedly came about after Coursera asked Duneier about licensing his course so that other schools could use the content for so-called blended learning experiences, which combine online and offline instruction. Earlier this summer, the startup said it had partnered with just under a dozen state schools with the goal of using MOOCs to improve educational quality and access at a lower cost.

In the past few months, MOOCs have come under attack from various corners of academia. In April, Amherst rejected a partnership with edX citing concerns that MOOCs could take tuition funding from middle- and lower-tier schools and lead to a degraded model of teaching. And in May, professors at San Jose State University refused to teach an online edX course created by a Harvard professor, arguing that MOOCs come at “great peril” to their university: they said massive online courses could mean that students will be exposed to fewer perspectives and that they could lead to two classes of universities.

But Duneier’s “defection” — as the Chronicle put it — is particularly interesting considering he wasn’t just considered a MOOC convert, but a model MOOC instructor. His decision is also worth noting given that while many professors see MOOCs as a threat, Duneier himself isn’t directly threatened by their encroachment.

It’s further evidence that while MOOCs have captured the media’s attention and the public’s imagination, their future is still quite uncertain.  And — as a recent survey pointed out — even those professors who try out the new teaching format don’t necessarily believe in their effectiveness.

Duneier told the Chronicle that his Coursera class was “one of the greatest experiences of [his] career” and that he’d like to teach another MOOC at some point — but under the right circumstances.