MOOCs Move Beyond the Perfect Media Narrative

The media love a good story, a narrative with characters, tension, and conflict. Higher ed rarely provides such narratives, unless they involve students overcoming the odds, or protests over tuition and student debt.

For the past two years, the subject of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, has delivered a compelling narrative about the future of higher ed, at a time when many colleges were struggling to maintain enrollments and stabilize their finances.

MOOCs reimagined the online course from a video camera at the back of a lecture hall to short videos made for the Web, with automated grading and peer interaction. The courses were taught by professors at the nation’s most elite colleges. They were free. Hundreds of thousands of students around the world signed up for them (although many fewer completed them). And Silicon Valley venture capitalists started to invest in platforms that would bring hundreds of them to the Web.

Even as the media—from Thomas Friedman to a few of us at The Chronicle—continued to tell that story, the MOOC providers, Coursera, edX, and Udacity, evolved. In start-up parlance, they “failed fast” then “iterated” their models, and in some cases, such as Udacity, made a “pivot,” meaning they tweaked their business model.

“We have found our niche in helping people find employable skills,” Sebastian Thrun told me on a visit to Udacity in September. Thrun, Udacity’s founder, is the former Stanford University professor who offered his artificial-intelligence class online to the masses for free in 2011, helping to set off the MOOC hype.

But earlier this year, after a high-profile experiment at San Jose State University to redesign several mathematics courses using Udacity’s platform didn’t work out as promised, Thrun started to rethink whether his model was for students at every ability level.

The idea of the MOOC first appealed to Thrun because at the University of Bonn in Germany in the late 1980s he often retreated to the library to seek out additional information that he found lacking in his classes. To him, MOOCs could do the same for students of this generation. The problem was that his ideal students were the type he found at Stanford, not San Jose State and thousands of other colleges and universities.

“The basic MOOC is a great thing for the top 5 percent of the student body, but not a great thing for the bottom 95 percent,” he told me. Thus, his pivot to focus more on corporate training to students who are motivated and need to acquire a specific skill.

For the media, however, Udacity’s shift was less interesting than the concept of his original artificial-intelligence course. It was largely ignored until an article in December’s Fast Company magazine described his “change of course” to focus more on corporate training.

The magazine piece was widely shared on Twitter and in the blogosphere by MOOC critics. For them, if Thrun truly understood the educational needs of most of today’s college students—particularly the 40 percent of freshmen enrolled in remedial courses—he would have realized the shortcomings of MOOCs years ago before he became among their biggest proponents. The critics wondered why the rest of the media world didn’t pick up on Udacity’s shifting business plan.

Of course, Udacity’s pivot doesn’t seem like big news in Silicon Valley or many other corners of the business world where ideas constantly evolve and where the first plan rarely survives contact with customers.

But on college campuses these days, the expectation is to find solutions that achieve success on the first try, even though we’re trying to change an educational model rooted in the Industrial Age. This lofty goal of only adopting ideas that are fully baked flies in the face of the basic tenets of academic research: experimentation, debate, and peer review.

At San Jose State, fresh off the experiment with Udacity, the Academic Senate voted last week to forbid the university to sign contracts with outside technology providers without the approval of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in whatever department would be affected. Is this what the pioneers of shared governance had in mind when they framed the concept—that faculty members would participate in every decision instead of electing leaders to define their roles and rights?

The first answer to any problem is rarely the correct one. Education is full of knotty problems that elude easy answers. So Thrun and other educational entrepreneurs, whether traditional academics or outsiders, should be given some latitude to experiment, fail, and pivot. Not every innovation in higher ed makes the perfect media narrative forever.

Return to Top