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Is The MOOC Hype Dying?


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.

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  • Mister_Carson

    I recently “enrolled” in a Coursera history course, and was bored to tears by it, and although I’ve often thought about going back to get another degree (BS Physics, MSEE, graduated 30+ years ago, but history is now
    my abiding passion), but this reminded me of why I won’t be doing that. (That and the desks are too small for me and being around 10 year olds with 10 years or more of experience is simply a non-starter for me)

    The literally medieval lecture format is not something I can to “engage” in anymore. There were efforts to to have students interact via blogs and various assignments, but the presentation method is just awful. It
    didn’t help that the material was not advanced enough, either, but really it was the presentation that did me in. I’ve learned more in less time from a class from the “Great Courses” series.

    So this autodidact will keep looking, and keep reading on my own, and will miss the comprehensiveness that a good collegiate program can bring to learning, but without the cultural Marxism/critical theory that has
    nearly drowned the social sciences with its effluent.

    I do hope the MOOCS continue to mature, and will still be cheering them on.

  • skhpcola

    “the extremely low completion rates for his company’s courses—often lower than 10 percent”

    That doesn’t seem too bad, when viewed in perspective. If modern universities actually gave a damn about teaching and graded according to an honest assessment of learned content, sit-down, traditional universities wouldn’t fare much better. It’s simply a datum to illustrate the continuing failure of leftist ideology and arrogance.

  • Nick Johnstone

    Thrun as the Godfather of MOOCs? What of George Siemens, Stephen Downes or Mike Feerick of that was founded in 2007 before the word MOOC was even coined to describe it? Some questionable hagiography here for a man who has abandoned a mission to educate those who need it most in favour of an easier business venture to please VC investors needing return. Let’s focus on Udacity’s failure to realise the social responsibility in the open education field and devote more attention to people like ALISON and EdX who are persevering with the mission to really educate those who need it.

  • Greg

    I don’t really understand why low completion rates are a problem. People aren’t penalized for signing up for a class just to view the lectures or dabble a bit, so relatively few will do all the work. So what?

    Traditional universities have high completion rates because the negatives of universities (cost, bad grades on permanent transcripts, etc.) are so high.

  • teapartydoc

    The clock keeps ticking. If I were wedded to the current system I would consider this a temporary reprieve, not a full pardon. After the appeals have run their course the verdict will remain: higher education is failing. Slowly, but failing all the same. Those huge limeston and brick buildings are going to be superfluous someday and everyone knows it. The insstitutions that are going to survive will be the disruptors that actually facilitate the transition to whatever new form emerges.

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