After a year of setback after setback, the hype around MOOCs is settling down a bit. The latest evidence of this comes courtesy of an interesting profile piece at Fast Company of Udacidy CEO Sebastian Thrun, a man who is in many ways the godfather of the MOOC concept.When he first founded Udacity, Thrun, a Stanford professor was motivated by a desire to bring a Stanford-quality education to millions of students around the world. Yet after seeing the extremely low completion rates for his company’s courses—often lower than 10 percent—he has shifted his vision towards something considerably more modest:
It will be, Thrun admits, “the biggest shift in the history of the company,” a pivot that involves charging money for classes and abandoning academic disciplines in favor of more vocational-focused learning. In short, Thrun must prove that Udacity is something more than a good story. […]Still, I couldn’t help but feel as if Thrun’s revised vision for Udacity was quite a comedown from the educational Wonderland he had talked about when he launched the company. Learning, after all, is about more than some concrete set of vocational skills. It is about thinking critically and asking questions, about finding ways to see the world from different points of view rather than one’s own. These, I point out, are not skills easily acquired by YouTube video.Thrun tells me he wasn’t arguing that Udacity’s current courses would replace a traditional education–only that it would augment it. “We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you,” he says. He adds that the university system will most likely evolve to shorter-form courses that focus more on professional development. “The medium will change,” he says.
Thrun’s change of focus may not be as big a shift as it appears on its face. It’s been apparent from the beginning that the format is better suited for some subjects than others. Math, science and business are easier to teach online than liberal-arts subjects like English and philosophy that rely more heavily on in-class discussions. And while a liberal arts education remains a good option for many people, the vast majority of American college students are choosing majors that are tightly linked to future careers: only 7 percent of all students major in the humanities. On the other hand, subjects like business, science, nursing and computer science are among the most common majors in the country. Even if MOOCs only impact the “vocational” side of the higher-ed world, this still amounts to a pretty sizable chunk of the industry.Furthermore, while MOOCs as they’re currently offered may not be enough to upend the higher-ed system on their own, there’s lots of promise for “blended” courses in which the online material is supplemented by regular meetings with teachers or tutors who lead discussions and proctor exams. These meetings could be handled remotely using teleconferencing technology, or they could be done in person at local testing centers, in either case adding that human component that remains the weakest link in how these courses are offered today.Whether this hybrid form comes from initiatives like Udacity’s partnership with Georgia Tech, or whether a lithe startup spawns the capabilities to facilitate a truly next-generation university is an open question. But the opportunity is there. There is plenty of room to disrupt how higher ed is delivered to students today.