Giving Up on MOOCs?


Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity which is one of the stars of private sector MOOC providers, has decided after 2+ years that the Massive Open Online Course is not going to disrupt higher education.

He hasn't really given up on the MOOC as much as he has given up on some of that open audience for them. A good part of his disillusionment seems to have come with his efforts to offer courses at San Jose State.

He had seen high enrollments (160,000) but low completion rates when he offered a MOOC at Stanford. But at San Jose State Udacity was offering the best product he had available and the incentive of credits and students were still not completing courses successfully.

The faculty at SJSU hadn't supported the appearance of the courses on campus and now their doubts seem more justified.

Part of the attention to Thrun's new take on the mission of the MOOC is that he seems to be saying that the MOOC learning experience is just not suited to the diverse students at varying levels of readiness that a college like SJSU. 

Of course, we need to keep in mind that it didn't seem as bad when the completion rate was low for those early courses because it didn't really matter (grade and credit-wise) if they didn't finish the course or master all the parts of it. At San Jose State, it mattered.

In a long article on, we learn that even with 1.6 million Udacity students so far, Thrun was obsessed with that discouraging completion rate. I have written before that I feel that we need to rethink how we define completion in the MOOC environment. My own experiences both in taking MOOCs as a student and in teaching them is that some learners are clearly there to gain knowledge about some of the course material, but without any intention to complete all of the course. And that is a valid reason to take a MOOC, as long as you're concerned about grades or credits. And we weren't as concerned with those things in the early - and much more Open - massive courses.

Has Thrun, the “godfather of free online education” given up on the MOOC? Not really. He says that those racially, economically diverse students at SJSU, “were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives…[for them] this medium is not a good fit.” He is giving up on students.

Okay, maybe that's not totally fair. He does admit that some of the Udacity courses are a "lousy product."  But others are jumping on Thrun's "throwing in the towel" comment as the downward turning point for MOOCs. Jonathan Freedman, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has an article that claims that MOOCs are becoming a “middlebrow” culture that references the Thrun interview comments. Freedman also has criticism for comments Bill gates has made about MOOC use supplanting traditional college coursework, but I am not convinced.

Thrun  ran into Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and Gates told him that “what you're doing is teaching to the 1% most motivated people on the planet. To sign up you have to be self-motivated. To stick with it you also have to be self-motivated. Those people, they can learn from anything. If you gave them a book, they would learn it equally well. So what exactly are you changing?"

That had to hurt. Maybe those words have stayed with him. Gates suggested that he redirect his focus on remedial math education. The Gates Foundation even provided funding for Udacity to offer its courses for free to inner-city high school kids. The success rate in those courses was not impressive, but it was considered a learning process for Udacity too.

What's the future for Udacity? Thrun says up next is “the biggest shift in the history of the company.” The goal is no longer to displace traditional higher education by delivering free elite-level online courses to millions of students worldwide. Now, it will be to move towards smaller, credit-bearing, priced courses that focus on technical and vocational skills.

I have thought since the beginning of the MOOC wave lifting that they would have a bigger impact with professional development and with technical fields. Our traditional classrooms and our traditional online courses will probably still be better for most academic disciplines. And those courses and school will still be the ones that grant degrees.

I agree with what Thrun is saying. Luckily for me, I don't have a company and venture capitalists relying on me to turn a profit.


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