Udacity throws out the MOOC?

As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.

We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.” Turns out he doesn’t even like the term MOOC.

Sebastian Thrun, Udacity, in an interview with Max Chafkin of FastCompany. November 14, 2013

Well, there it is folks. After two years of hype, breathless proclamations about how Udacity will transform higher education, Silicon Valley blindness to existing learning research, and numerous articles/interviews featuring Sebastian Thrun, Udacity has failed.

No one did more of a disservice to MOOCs than Thrun through his wild proclamations (“we have found the magic combination for online learning” and “in the future there will only be 10 universities”, digital learning manifestos, and so on) and self-aggrandizing. No one will do more damage to MOOCs as a concept than Thrun now that he realizes how unfounded his statements actually were.

This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs. Thrun tied his fate too early to VC funding. As a result, Udacity is now driven by revenue pursuits, not innovation. He promised us a bright future of open learning. He delivered to us something along the lines of a 1990′s corporate elearning program.

George Siemens, The Failure of Udacity, November 15, 2013

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” says Thrun in an incredibly revealing statement. In other words, the purpose of education is to have a job not to make one. To be a worker, not a manager and not an entrepreneur. Let’s be honest. This is not the value proposition of Stanford.

So yeah, perhaps it’s easy for many in higher education to shrug and sigh with relief that Thrun has decided to set his sights elsewhere. But if we care about learning – if we care about learners – I think we need to maintain our fierce critiques about MOOCs. Who is the target audience? Who is the “ideal student”? Why is crappy pedagogy okay for “them”? Who owns these students’ data? After all, there are no FERPA protections if you aren’t taking federal dollars. In this framework, it’s all for sale.

Audrey Waters, Why We Shouldn’t Celebrate Udacity’s “Pivot”, November 14, 2013

Thrun seems to have ‘discovered’ that open access, distance education students struggle to complete. I don’t want to sound churlish here, but hey, the OU has known this for 40 years. It’s why it spends a lot of money developing courses that have guidance and support built into the material, and also on a comprehensive support package, ranging from tutors, helpdesk, regional study centres and so on. But of course, none of the journalists and certainly not the new, revolutionary people at Udacity wanted to hear any of this. They could solve it all, and why hadn’t higher education thought of this before?

Martin Weller, Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, November 15, 2013

Well, people should know that:

  1. cMOOCs predate Mr. Thrun & Udacity (as well as the other xMOOCs) by many years; the MOOC moniker was usurped by big money and brand; the first MOOC was in 2008 and started by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier
  2. cMOOCs offer a theoretical basis and practical demonstrations of heutagogical and technological dimensions of connective learning while xMOOCs are mere extensions of online and distance instructivist learning and not the singularly large and disruptive changes they claim to be
  3. xMOOCs will continue to exist for the limited purpose that they are useful for (e.g. whatever allows them to make money); cMOOCs shall continue to evolve organically (a lot of questions still need answering there)
  4. The problems of  learner motivation, power laws (dropouts), employability etc. are not new anywhere in the world and have confronted all of education (online or offline) for quite a while now. cMOOCs may be able to offer a substantial improvement in this regard, and more and more research and experimentation is needed here
  5. The problems of education in the world today are too big and varied to be solved by any one magical silver bullet; there will be plurality – one only hopes that good sense and solid research will back that plurality and not brand & money

Mr. Thrun (and others) at the helm of xMOOCs resemble the hare trying to outrun the proverbial tortoise. As George said, this is their own failure, not the failure of the open learning movement.

However, I would like to congratulate Mr. Thrun on his moment of truth. We all make mistakes and we should learn from them. I just hope the others are listening in and will acknowledge Mr. Thrun’s sentiment as being something that will resound with them.

And I would encourage the xMOOCs, having got the momentum and visibility, to start engaging with the cMOOC community and co-create new models that will help us solve key problems afflicting all of us today.

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