Too Much Online Teacher-Student Interaction?

I’ve been loosely following UC Irvine’s Microeconomics for Managers course on Coursera, but last week, our dear Professor Richard McKenzie wrote the following to us in an email:

Because of disagreements over how to best to conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret.

Unlike most other MOOCs, McKenzie was the key factor in keeping students engaged. Typical MOOCs keep students involved via regular quizzes and assignments; neither of which are a part of this class. Instead, McKenzie emailed the students nearly everyday with thoughts and reflections on the discussions happening on the forums.

While I enjoyed his “Economic Epistles”, clearly someone did not. Whether it was UC Irvine or Coursera is unclear, but information points to Irvine. What is clear is that it is difficult for students to stay engaged after McKenzie’s “disengagement”.

Query, Is it possible for there to be to much teacher-student interaction in an online class?

Forcing McKenzie to “disengage” is a very disappointing move. MOOCs have made it possible to reach a previously unfathomable amount of students, but it has also created a strong disconnect between the student and the teacher. McKenzie was one of the few professors proving that it is possible to maintain some semblance of a teacher-student relationship even when the class comprises 10,000+ students.

I strongly support such engagement from the professor, and it motivates students to participate on the forums. This class was a unique opportunity for anyone in the class to collaborate closely with experts in the field, and an opportunity for your voice/opinion to be heard.

The typical “interaction with an expert” for a MOOC happens between students and TAs, which is great for learning, but just does not have the same effect as interacting with the professor. A few students may have been burdened by the flood of verbose emails and consider it spam, but they have the option to disable these emails. Whether they know how to or not is a different matter.

My personal hypothesis is that UC Irvine was offended by McKenzie’s close interaction with students. With such a close relationship, Irvine loses a bit of leverage in getting students to apply to its MBA program rather than take the online classes. I can only assume McKenzie crossed the line by organizing a meeting with classmates in the local area.

Either way, the departure of McKenzie leaves me with a bad impression of UC Irvine’s online and distance-learning initiatives. Their only consolation is, at least it’s doing better than Georgia Tech’s class. Perhaps someday Coursera or UC Irvine will disclose the specific motivation for replacing McKenzie in the online class, but until then, I have only my own conjectures.