One of the architects of the MOOC revolution has decided that the movement should go in a different direction. In a lengthy interview with Fast Company, Sebastian Thrun, the inventor of the MOOC platform Udacity, announced that he’s shelving his original goal to displace traditional higher education by delivering free online courses to millions of students worldwide. Instead, Udacity is moving towards offering credit-bearing, priced courses (likely smaller in size) that focus on technical, vocational skills.
Thrun pioneered massive open online courses in 2011, when he turned his Stanford artificial intelligence course into an online video series that attracted 160,000 registrants. From the start he struck a pose of bold confidence, telling Wired that within fifty years, MOOCs would decimate brick-and-mortar colleges to a mere ten in number. The name “Udacity” is Thrun’s portmanteau drawn from “university” and “audacity.”
In the Fast Company interview, however, Thrun highlights his disappointments with MOOCs’ record: 90 percent drop-out rates with only half of the remaining 10 percent actually earning a passing grade; the student demographic overwhelmingly populated by well-educated, college-degreed professionals rather than the underprivileged students he had hoped to reach; the San Jose State University debacle, in which San Jose students taking Udacity-delivered MOOCs performed significantly worse than their peers in physical classrooms; and the unexpected failure of Thrun’s interventions intended to raise passing rates. Thrun tried adding mentors and TAs to provide personalized attention and interaction with students, incorporating immediate feedback and rewards in the forms of badges and progress meters, and partnering with schools such as San Jose to provide college credit, which Thrun expected to ramp up student interest. “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,” Thrun remarked. “We have a lousy product.”
Like a good engineer-entrepreneur, Thrun isn’t calling it quits. He is refocusing his efforts to develop a new MOOC niche for a different demographic. He predicts a complementary rather than rivalrous relationship between MOOCs and their classroom counterparts, as MOOCs shift towards professional development in technical fields while classrooms retain their market for most academic disciplines, most degrees, and (thus) most of the students. Besides, Udacity is evidently profitable: the article quotes one of Udacity’s significant investors, who remarked, “The attitude from the beginning, about how we’d make money, was, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ Well, we figured it out.”
Udacity has been at the forefront of many MOOC developments, partnering directly with undergraduate programs and Georgia Tech’s master’s degree program in computer science scheduled to launch this spring. Udacity’s self-reinvention may foreshadow developments to come in its competitors EdX and Coursera. “We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you,” Thrun admits, though he still sees room for MOOCs to influence the university towards more vocational, utilitarian ends. “The medium will change.”