The popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is now creating new challenges for student-teacher relationships.

Inside Higher Ed writer Ry Rivard looks at approaches being developed related to threats of online violence in the MOOC setting.

Scott Plous, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University, is preparing to teach more than 70,000 students who signed up for his class through Coursera, one of the popular MOOC providers. Plous, who worked at a Los Angeles suicide hotline before graduate school, is now trying to figure out how to monitor the message boards and deal with students who post hate speech or are threatening violence or suicide.

“If somebody is talking about a mass killing, how does the community handle that?” he said.

Since neither he nor his teaching assistants can expect to read every post on the class message board, Plous is partially counting on self-policing by users, something he may talk about in his introductory lecture. For instance, if someone in a remote village in India is talking about suicide, Plous hopes other users from India can suggest places to go for help.

Troubled MOOC users are an elephant in the room, said Gary Pavela, the author of a book on college student suicide and an instructor at Syracuse University and the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

Part of the advantage of the massive online courses is they can teach large numbers of students at little cost. There are some obvious differences between a MOOC user and a traditional student: There is no campus, so there can be no campus shootings, for instance. Some users are older or even younger than traditional college students. And, since MOOCs are mostly free and few are for credit, there is little on the line for users, unlike students who may be stressfully and expensively vying for a degree on a campus or even in a for-credit online class.

But Pavela wonders if online education as a whole can truly work for some students who have unaddressed inner turmoil.

“If people think they can move to the online university and do away with student services, they are being naïve,” he said. “Again, we’re not dealing with robots. They are people that have emotions and their emotions will interplay with their learning.”

Pavela said there is not legal liability for the online course providers, but there is an ethical obligation to users.

…Coursera said it is thinking about how to deal with troubled users. “To put it simply, at Coursera, we’re still trying to figure out what that process looks like,” said Yin Lu, whose title at Coursera is community and culture architect. She said so far the company has not had severe cases involving troubled students.