What do you do when a MOOC student does not meet the prerequisites?

I quickly learned one thing from my conversations with University of Minnesota faculty about their Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs):

Students don’t follow directions — including when they choose which MOOCs to enroll in.

Professor Chris Cramer’s “Statistical Molecular Thermodynamics” MOOC has a list of prerequisites — otherwise known “recommended background”:

One year of college-level physics. One year of college-level general chemistry. Differential calculus of multiple variables.

After his MOOC started, Cramer said, in the forums he discovered that a good number of participants didn’t have the necessary background knowledge for the course.

He told me:

“Students don’t give a damn what the prerequisites are. The course is free, so they sign up anyway.”

I asked him what he thought of having to do such “remedial” teaching — and how far he was willing to go to provide it.

He said it’s not like the participants were being slackers. A lot of them had a science background — just not his.

Cramer said he didn’t change the main course material, but ended up spending a lot of time addressing the most common basic questions in the forums. He said their questions have caused him to think harder about how to explain basic concepts:

“It’s kind of fun. And it’s rare that I’ve had to say, ‘I’m sorry, but there’s too big a gap there.’”