Academics to Udacity Founder: Told Ya

In a new magazine profile of Sebastian Thrun, the Udacity founder calls his company’s massive open online courses a “lousy product” to use for educating underprepared college students. That assertion has prompted a chorus of I-told-you-sos from his critics in academe.

In interviews for the Fast Company profile, Mr. Thrun reflected on the discouraging results of an experiment at San Jose State University in which instructors used Udacity’s online platform to teach mathematics. Some of the students were enrolled at the university, and some at a local high school.

“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,” Mr. Thrun told the reporter, Max Chafkin. “It was a painful moment.”

For critics of MOOCs and the hype surrounding them, that admission was perhaps the reddest meat in a lengthy profile that cast Mr. Thrun as a fierce competitor who came to online education only recently—after watching Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, give a TED Talk about his popular online tutorials.

But academics who have studied online education for longer than a few years were not surprised by the Udacity founder’s humbling.

“Well, there it is folks,” wrote George Siemens, a researcher and strategist at Athabasca University’s Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, on his blog. “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.”

“Thrun seems to have ‘discovered’ that open-access, distance-education students struggle to complete,” wrote Martin Weller, a professor of educational technology at the Open University, in Britain. “I don’t want to sound churlish here, but hey, the OU has known this for 40 years.”

Beyond schadenfreude, Mr. Thrun’s humbling has left some academics wondering who MOOCs are good for, if not underprivileged students in California. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently noted that the students taking MOOCs from Penn on Coursera, another major MOOC platform, tend to be well educated already. “The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most—those without access to higher education in developing countries—are underrepresented among the early adopters,” wrote the researchers.

In a blog post this week, Mr. Thrun responded to the fallout from the Fast Company profile by citing data from Udacity’s summer pilot with San Jose State, whose pass rates compared more favorably to the traditional versions offered on the campus. But he neglected to mention that Udacity had, by then, stopped focusing on underprivileged students. More than half of the students in the summer trial already had a college degree.

“Thrun’s cavalier disregard for the SJSU students reveals his true vision of the target audience for MOOCs: students from the posh suburbs, with 10 tablets apiece and no challenges whatsoever—that is, the exact people who already have access to expensive higher education,” wrote Rebecca Schuman, a Slate columnist and adjunct professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo, framed Mr. Thrun’s retreat from the trenches as good news for professors. “Who’s left to teach all those less-than-ideal students at San Jose State? Living, breathing professors,” wrote Mr. Rees on his blog.

“That means that the only way to open higher education to the masses is to hire more people to teach, either in person or online,” he added. “Accept no austerity-inspired technological substitutes because bringing quality higher education to the world won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it will be good for the world in the long run.”

Russell Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Cooperative for Educational Technologies, has been as frustrated as anyone by the attention lavished on Mr. Thrun in the past two years. Nevertheless Mr. Poulin said that the debate over MOOCs had at least forced instructors to reckon with the conditions that have made MOOCs such an intriguing proposal.

“Udacity and its sister organizations need to be commended for bringing the conversation back to teaching, learning, and outcomes,” wrote Mr. Poulin in an email. “Those on the ‘traditional’ side need to be more aware that affordability and access for higher education are issues that will be with us for some time.”

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