Saturday, January 24, 2015

but do you have to destroy the lectures, problem sets, solutions, and structured materials too?


insidehighered |  Walter H.G. Lewin’s debut as a massive open online course instructor was announced with some fanfare: “Afraid of physics?” a press release asked in January 2013. “Do you hate it? Walter Lewin will make you love physics whether you like it or not.”

That made his MOOCs a good fit for Faïza Harbi, 32, a private English tutor living in Montpellier, France. Harbi spoke openly to Inside Higher Ed but asked that her maiden name be used. She said she decided to take a physics course after struggling with the subject in high school. She was not familiar with the rock star professor, whose more than four decades at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, innovative and hugely popular video lectures and hundreds of scholarly articles had earned him international acclaim.

To connect with other learners in the MOOC, Harbi searched Facebook for groups dedicated to the course but found none, so she created one herself. On Nov. 24, 2013, someone with the profile name Walter Lewin requested to join the group. Believing it to be a parody account, Harbi approved the request and asked for proof. Within minutes, she received an email with a screenshot of her Progress page -- a tool only individual learners and their edX instructor can access (MIT's MOOCs are offered through edX).

Harbi said she was surprised -- not just by the fact that she was communicating with the real Walter Lewin, but also that she was doing well in the course. She takes medications for anxiety and depression, which she told Lewin makes it difficult for her to concentrate. Lewin, Harbi said, told her he would help her regain some self-confidence.

It would take almost a year before Harbi, with the help of MIT’s investigators, said she came to understand that Lewin’s interest in her was not motivated by empathy, and that their first conversations included inappropriate language. Shortly after contacting her, Harbi said, Lewin quickly moved their friendship into uncomfortable territory, and she was pushed to participate in online sexual role-playing and send naked pictures and videos of herself. After about 10 months, Harbi said, she resumed self-mutilating after seven years of not doing so.

The harassment, however, “started day one,” Harbi said. Eventually, she said she discovered she was one of many women, which MIT confirmed.