UC Irvine professor quits midway through online Coursera class


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A UC Irvine professor has stopped teaching midway through a massive online course in microeconomics offered through the Coursera organization, saying that he had disagreements on how to conduct the free class for thousands of students around the world.

The action by Richard A. McKenzie, an emeritus professor in the UC Irvine business school, highlights the uncertainties faculty face in adapting traditional face-to-face classes to the emerging universe of massive open online courses known as MOOCs.


In his statements posted to the class website over the weekend, McKenzie appeared to be frustrated over his attempts to get the students to obtain and read as much of the textbook as possible.

‘I will not cave on my standards. If I did, any statement of accomplishment will not be worth the digits they are printed on,’ he wrote.

The course, which is now midway through its 10-week schedule, will continue since its lectures are already videotaped; an administrator from the UC Irvine Distance Learning Center will coordinate it, officials said.

But in chat room postings, students said they were confused over whether to keep on with the non-credit ‘Microeconomics for Managers’ course, which is one of six that the UC Irvine online extension has in operation this term through the Coursera group.

McKenzie declined Monday to discuss his action in detail other than saying in an email that the matter has been ‘a drain’ on him and involves serious issues. In his message to the class, he wrote: ‘Because of disagreements over how best to conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret.’

Gary Matkin, UC Irvine’s dean of Continuing Education, Distance Learning and Summer Session, said in a statement that 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 not gain access to supplemental learning materials.’


Future lessons and assignments, as developed by McKenzie, will continue to be presented to students, according to Matkin.

‘We will make sure that the students have the guidance and feedback they have experienced so far in the course, which they uniformly so far have praised,’ he said.

McKenzie, who retired from his regular faculty position at UC Irvine in 2011, said the Coursera students ‘will not be left hanging’ and that all course assignments and discussion problems are ready to be posted as scheduled. ‘However, I will not be involved,’ he wrote to students.

Under the Coursera model, much of the grading is automatic or performed by fellow students. Professors videotape most of their lectures in advance and often comment in general on message boards without answering questions from individual students.

This has been a mixed month for the Mountain View-based Coursera. Earlier, a Georgia Tech course on ‘Fundamentals of Online Education’ was canceled after technical glitches. But the organization won a significant victory when the American Council on Education said four Coursera courses, including a math one at UC Irvine, were worthy of college credit.

Coursera was founded last year by two Stanford University professors as a for-profit organization that posts online courses from prestigious universities. So far, 33 schools are participating, with 222 classes in all.


While enrollment in the classes is free, Coursera charges students $30 to $99 for a completion certificate. The classes are taken under surveillance monitoring that includes typing patterns to prove a student’s identity. Coursera plans to charge extra for students who will take final exams proctored through webcams to earn potential college credit.


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-- Larry Gordon