Professor deleted MOOC to ‘raise student engagement’

The University of Zurich says it has cleared up the bizarre case of the MOOC – massive open online course – that went missing. But the university is offering few clarifying details to the public, which has been left to piece together theories from the university’s statements and from cryptic tweets by the course’s professor about an unspecified experiment he might have been trying to conduct.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

As I reported earlier, the content of a massive open online course taught by one of the university’s lecturers, Professor Paul-Olivier Dehaye, vanished last week without explanation, leaving an empty husk on Coursera’s platform.

The course, “Teaching Goes Massive: New skills required”, was one week into its planned three-week run when the videos and other course materials disappeared. Coursera officials said Dehaye, a mathematician, deleted the materials on 2 July and the company has since restored them. But the company’s officials initially were as confused as everyone else.

Ulrich Straumann, a vice-dean at the university, has since replied to an inquiry I sent last Monday to Dehaye’s email address. Straumann wrote:

“Professor Dehaye, instructor of the Coursera course ‘Massive Teaching – New skills needed’, has deleted content during the course as part of his pedagogical concept in order to get more students actively engaged in the course forum.

“In the course of the events, confused students contacted Coursera directly, as they assumed a technical problem [had been] the reason for the disappearing of course material. Unfortunately, Professor Dehaye had not previously informed Coursera of this part of his pedagogical 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.

“Professor Dehaye’s course included experimental teaching aspects which led to further confusion among students. Coursera and the University of Zurich decided on Friday, July 3, to reinstall the course’s full content and paused editing privileges of the instructor until final clarification on the issue would be obtained.”

I asked Straumann if he would elaborate on the thinking behind Dehaye’s unorthodox pedagogical approach, and whether the university planned to discipline the professor in any way. He replied:

“The University of Zurich is a responsible employer. You certainly understand that we cannot communicate any personal information about our employees to the public.”

I argued that the professor’s pedagogical tactics were a professional matter, not a personal one. In his response, Straumann reiterated that “Professor Dehaye’s goal in deleting course material was to have more students actively participate in the forum, instead of watching the videos only”.

The vice-dean added: “Once final clarification is obtained, the University of Zurich will decide whether any action needs to be taken.”

Dehaye’s explanatory post

It appears that Dehaye was in fact conducting an experiment to see if he could get students to migrate to a non-Coursera platform and spur a discussion of the hazards of data mining in free online courses.

In a post last week to an online text-editing forum, the professor (or someone posting in his name) wrote about how he did not want to assist the company in its efforts to collect and monetise student data.

He said he had been contacted repeatedly by the company about the data. “I feel they are fishing for business models, which I am certainly not going to give them,” Dehaye wrote in the post, which was first reported by Inside Higher Ed. “I don’t want to tell them how to track you.”

Dehaye, who got his doctoral degree at Stanford University, where Coursera was born, said he did not wish the company harm; rather, he wants to make sure students know how their data might be used.

“I don’t mean to destroy Coursera,” he wrote, “just insist to those students that there are dangers.”

He said he intended to create confusion and media attention as a way of drawing attention to the issue. “I hope you learned by thinking first, and then getting the explanations,” he wrote in a post to participants who had found their way to the document.

“I could have just told, but it’s not the same.”

* This article was updated on 8 July 2014.