January 23, 2014
A professor’s plan to let students in his Coursera massive open online course moderate themselves went awry over the holidays as the conversation, in his words, “very quickly disintegrated into a snakepit of personal venom, religious bigotry and thinly disguised calls for violence.” But some students have accused him of abusive and tyrannical behavior in his attempts to restore civility.
The 10-week course, titled “Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World,” is taught by Ebrahim Afsah, associate professor of public international law at the University of Copenhagen. His experiences highlight an important challenge that the scale of MOOCs presents: How do you wrangle tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of students into staying on topic? A traditional face-to-face course might fare well with one or two troublemakers, but those interruptions are magnified when enrollment reaches the thousands — especially if those students can post anonymously. [RCF: my emphasis]
In the syllabus, Afsah wrote students were free to join the course without any prior knowledge of Islamic beliefs or constitutional law. “Rather than assuming a common frame of reference, it is expected that students’ diverse disciplinary backgrounds will complement each other,” he wrote.
Seven weeks into the course, the phrase rings of wishful thinking. The plan to let students themselves weed out incendiary forum posts using Coursera’s flagging and comment voting system went about as well any other internet forum without ever-vigilant moderators — not to mention the forum invited students from around the world to discuss delicate topics such as the Arab Spring, nuclear weapons and the War in Afghanistan. Debates quickly devolved into heated discussions about Israel’s role in the Middle East and the role of women in Islam, with students propagating their own religious beliefs.