Udacity: Shifting Models Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Just over a year ago (a year and two days, to be exact), Clay Shirky wrote Napster, Udacity & the Academy, one of a few “must-read” articles regarding the MOOC phenomenon.  Shirky built an argument that MOOCs fit the monicker of Christensen’s theory of disruptive technology, doing so by noting the dominant higher education narrative (made up of Ivy League or Tier 1 Research schools) focuses on a small and misleading fraction of the sea of higher education (regional schools, community colleges, for-profit institutions), allowing him to posit that the theory behind the MOOC is proof that higher education can be disrupted:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled.

Shirky then links this “unbundled education” (possible for those who cannot afford the “ransom note” of a higher education sticker price) to the potential of a MOOC, noting that, like the musical track unbundled from the CD, learning can be set free from the degree.

The argument Shirky presents is compelling, and was a watershed moment in the MOOC debate, a place where a well-respected Internet scholar seemingly sided with a movement that many practitioners viewed as antithetical to learning and the Open movement.  As an advocate for Open, Shriky’s argument of a collegiate experience grounded in reality and not lofty Ivy stature saw MOOCs as an opportunity to improve that reality, an opportunity for those whom payment was one of the primary hurdles:

MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system.

One year and two days ago, this was the advertised potential of the MOOC movement.  The heavily advertised potential.

The MOOC was a model that could positively affect displaced high school students, afford a 12 year old Pakistani child an opportunity to excel in computer science, and globalize learning by setting up MOOC-based Internet cafes around the world. The MOOC could democratize education, both domestic and global.  The MOOC could change the infrastructure of higher education, through removing some burdensome bureaucracy involved in receiving a college degreerestructuring of scholastic accreditation, or providing education opportunities to at-risk and non-traditional students.  All the while, this service was heralded as a free opportunity for the learner, quality education for anyone anywhere.  The MOOC was a win-win for all parties.

Not everyone bought into the hype.  There were questions of the model’s archaic pedagogy, the notion of digital imperialism, the media’s obsession with how MOOCs could be profitable, and the model’s potential celebration of piecemeal/adjunct labor in what many consider a neoliberal political climate.  Criticism was written off, first as unfair due to the newness of the phenomenon, then as indicative of higher education’s inertia.

One particular criticism addressed the contingencies (or lack thereof) MOOCs had in place for the host of learners traditionally not affected by Ivy League or Tier 1 Research schools:  first-generation higher education students, immigrant families, remedial students, non-traditional students, learning disabled students, students who were not digital natives.  Literature from Udacity referred to these students as underrepresented by existing college apparati.

Decades of research and practice to determine methods for helping these underrepresented populations find educational success paves a difficult path for student and teacher. Moreover, the history of distance education showed that heutagogy, or self-directed learning, was a prime characteristic in distance success.  MOOCs, a brand of distance education advertised as the panacea for any and all learners, had shown an ability to market their panache and prowess, and the experts at the front of each MOOC were considered intellectual rockstars, but the volumes of research that define modern education practices was at best unbeknownst to MOOCs, and at worst willfully ignored.  Rather, MOOC luminaries such as Sebastian Thrun continued to purport the value of their wares, at one time boasting that in 50 years’ time only 10 universities would remain in the world, and Udacity would be one of them.

Yet in January of 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown (long considered one of America’s foremost liberal politicians) announced a public-private partnership with Udacity geared at benefitting a number of these underserved education populations.  This partnership came after Brown reportedly approached Thrun, hat in hand, asking for help in solving California’s higher education problem*.  Udacity piloted a handful of introductory mathematics courses at San Jose State University, a university where nearly three quarters of students are considered underrepresented by traditional collegiate means.  The first wave was dubbed a failure, and Thrun quickly blamed the failure on troubles due to the underrepresented population, not noting that it was this underserved population that was the purpose for the public-private partnership borne of state funding.  The second wave was considered somewhat better, but still a failure when taking into account that pesky underrepresented population.

*Interesting to read the link and see how Governor Brown’s research into educational methodology and outcomes played into choosing Thrun.  If you have not read the link, I should note that this asterisk is sarcasm.  

Today, in a cult of personality piece published by business web periodical Fast Company, Thrun announced a new direction for Udacity, a direction away from underrepresented student populations and global ideals.  From the article:

“the biggest shift in the history of the company” [requires] 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.

Taking the last sentence at face value, the MOOC is a good story and Udacity must be more.  But to that group of educators who cautioned the zeal of EdTech mavens and MOOCmania, Udacity is anything but a good story, rather an evident Emperor with no clothes who continues to rave about his three-piece suit.

The rift between MOOCmania and critical discussion of the learning model is evident when engaging the Fast Company article in a negotiated read. The piece is tone-deaf to the research and to distance education (a phenomenon that seems like a pre-requisite for mainstream or business writing on MOOCs).  Author Max Chafkin notes his personal shock when Thrun says he is not a fan of the term MOOC.  This is anything but shocking — MOOC was a term borne of a specific course exercise, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (known colloquially as #cck08), a model that spread to incorporate various remixes of the idea that learning happens via networks and content is not the driving force of the learning environment but rather a product.  Moreover, Thrun did not name his 2011 Introduction to Artificial Intelligence a MOOC, but rather a bold experiment in distributed learning, a term that links the course structure directly to machine learning and artificial intelligence.  MOOC was not synonymous with Thrun, Udacity or any other main street players until Tamar Lewin labeled Thrun’s work as such in a 2012 NYTimes article.  The MOOC of George Siemens and Stephen Downes still exists, but it’s not considered a MOOC in the mainstream press.  The MOOC of popular culture is a marketing buzzword that heralds change, disruption, globalization, democracy and betterment.  Today’s MOOC, at least in the vision of Udacity and Sebastian Thrun, the luminary rockstar professor (and, if Fast Company is to be believed, the second most famous scientist in the world), is an amalgam of business speak, helpdesk assistance and automated personalization all in the name of community and learning because what Udacity was calling a MOOC up until today they are now equating to “reading a textbook.”

It is the business speak, the corporate element, that lacks nuanced understanding of education as a longstanding social structure that only recently equates to a business opportunity.  From this raider perspective, education is not an historic entity requiring understanding and consideration to engage, but a crumbling system deserving of the pasture treatment:

“…it’s hard to imagine an industry more ripe for disruption than one in which the professionals literally still don medieval robes. “Education hasn’t changed for 1,000 years,” says Peter Levine, a partner with Andreessen Horowitz and a Udacity board member, summing up the Valley’s conventional wisdom on the topic. “Udacity just seemed like a fundamentally new way to change how communities of people are educated.”

There are parts of education that still mirror the education from 1,000 years ago, just as there are parts of artistic painting that still mirror the practice of painting from 1,000 years ago.  Just like a painter at the dawn of the last millennium would apply paint to a canvas in effort to capture a vision or feeling, education at the dawn of the last millennium involved novices gaining guided insight from an expert, a path that continues to this day.  But just as painters gained the utility of various media and ability to create perspective in art (which led to realism, baroque, romanticism, and now has us in a quasi-postmodern world), educators gained numerous abilities and techniques (the separation of the sacred from education, the expansion of citizen, theories such as behaviorism and cognition, the notion of pedagogies, and various model methodologies such as distance education or problem-based learning), and today’s paintings and manner of educating the public are wholly different beyond a very basic and rudimentary definition of their fields.

“I was looking at the data, and I decided I would make a really good class,” [Thrun] recalls. Statistics 101, taught by the master himself and recorded that summer, is interactive and full of accessible analogies. Most important, it is designed so that students who are not particularly adept at math or programming can make it through. Thrun told me that he tried to smile whenever he was recording a voice-over, so that even though he couldn’t be seen, his enthusiasm for the subject would be imputed to his online students. “From a pedagogical perspective, it was the best I could have done,” he says. “It was a good class.”

It is one thing to run an experiment in a technology start-up, find questionable results upon maiden voyage, and rebrand the product to serve a more narrow population that provides an opportunity to parlay financial incentive for  investors.  It is yet another to do that when the product is education, more to the point underserved learner education, more to the point underserved learner education in part funded by the State of California.  The same people who would tell Mr. Thrun that smiling is not the benchmark of pedagogical practice are the same ones who would have told him teacher enthusiasm is not the problem facing education today.  Educating a population is a monumental undertaking, and for over 100 years this undertaking has come with a compendium of research (to be overwhelmed by the volume, check out the American Educational Research Association), building off the shoulders of giants to remain methodologically sound while venturing into the obstacles of the day.  Ignoring the existing model (or shunning it because it fits a media narrative where entrenched teachers are an enemy combatant) does nothing to help the students such narrative purports to encompass.  Professor & critic Ian Bogost noted, “Education, particularly the education of populations that most need it to improve their lot, is tied up with a political and economic situation that is not sufficiently addressed by merely connecting some of its output to the Internet.”  Smiling is not a substitute for the numerous variables at play in providing quality education in America.

Moreover, there is a research-grounded movement to provide free global access to quality education resources, curriculum and pedagogies, and it’s been around longer than any sort of MOOC, the Open Education Resources Research Hub.  OER views education as a right, not a product.  But Jerry Brown did not go to David Wiley for help with California’s education problem.  He went to Sebastian Thrun, whose start-up partners look nothing like a host of educators but more like a sea of entrepreneurs.

…companies pay to produce the classes and pledge to accept the certificates awarded by Udacity for purposes of employment. Udacity won’t disclose how much it is making, but Levine of Andreessen Horowitz says he’s pleased. “The attitude from the beginning, about how we’d make money, was, ‘We’ll figure it out,'” he says. “Well, we figured it out.”  Thrun, ever a master of academic branding, terms this sponsored-course model the Open Education Alliance and says it is both the future of Udacity and, more generally, college education. “At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” Thrun says, sounding more CEO than professor.

Udacity was always rather different from its MOOC platform brethren Coursera and EdX, most notably in its existence outside of academia and its unabashed for-profit model.  But Udacity’s role in the evolution of higher education in the era of MOOC did not come with an asterisk.  Jerry Brown sought out Sebastian Thrun because he was the media visionary for massive open online learning.  California Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg engaged Sebastian Thrun’s input for SB-520, legislation designed to ease existing restrictions on course and college accreditation, and Cathy Davidson of HASTAC did the same for her Learner’s Bill of Rights.  President Obama took to this energy and set out a Higher Education plan that focused in part on easing bureaucratic restrictions on education start-ups.  Such restrictions exist to help stave off for-profiteers such as Kaplan and Argosy, or even Trump University.  When Udacity shifts its globally democratic perspective, what is the political fall-out?  No legislation easing restrictions has passed, but 2+ years of magazine covers and awkward arms-crossed (or bicycle-mounted) photos cannot be undone.  The American education narrative today is one of a broken system, a rotting tree, a complacent tower in desperate need of a replacement, a lighting strike, a campus tsunami.  Had Udacity been able to provide a modicum of quality education to underrepresented populations, criticism would have remained to argue the pedagogy of such learning.  With Udacity shifting away from underrepresented populations, the criticism is now about what is left in the wake of 2+ years of hyperbole and 0 years of results.  And we cannot confuse what has shifted.  It is not the narrative but only their business model; the narrative is still a system in crisis and searching for some low-cost, tech-savvy gizmo to do the job because we only need 10 schools and unions are the problem and our kids don’t know enough STEM and plumbers make more money than college grads anyway.

[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.

Clay Shirky argued that the MOOC could replace many schools if society viewed the existing schools as an inadequate option for further education.  He did not argue that a MOOC would be equal to an Ivy League education, but he notes that the dominant paradigm of education discourse equated higher education to elite schools.  The MOOC movement has dressed itself in such rhetoric, both that the existing model needs disruption and that MOOCs can equal great education from great minds, only requiring of the learner some Internet access and a can-do attitude.  This rhetoric has yet to prove truthful.  If Udacity’s augmentation of a traditional education provides no results better than the traditional education, who benefits from the win-win of the MOOC?  Were Udacity a winner, they likely would not had shifted their business model.  Meanwhile, conversation about fixing the education crisis continues while San Jose State seeks to cut its academic budget, saved by an 11th hour about-face.  An argument has been made that there are better educational options than schools such as the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and Bridgerland Applied Technology College.  If those better options struggle, do not pan out, or shift business strategies, will we see the same energy to re-engage those non-elite schools, the same energy that has existed around the MOOC phenomenon?  Will computer scientists, venture capitalists, and NYTimes columnists invest in the existing structure?  Or will the traveling sideshow move on to the next structure in need of disruption?  What will happen if/when the disruptors leave, and they have created more problems and no solutions?

21 thoughts on “Udacity: Shifting Models Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

  1. Pingback: Udacity: Shifting Models Means Never Having to...

  2. Pingback: Briefly Noted (reactions to Sebastian Thrun’s Fast Company hagiography) | GlobalHigherEd

  3. wiltwhatman

    Thoughtful response. There’s a lot here, so, apologies, I’m going to miss things in my response. But I’ll be coming back to this post to redigest it.

    I’ve read a lot of people dancing on Thrun’s grave, and some co-opting his direction change as proof, or validation for their own disruptions.

    I think you contextualise what’s happened well, and set us up to think about what it means, and meant.

    I’d agree, there were a lot of critics, sceptics and objections to Thrun. A lot of people suggesting that the pedagogy was basic, archaic, and a throwback, rather than a surge forward. And they had a lot of evidence on their side. And they made often sound arguments, based on careful reading, a knowledge of the history of pedagogy, and an ability to remain impartial.

    It feels, lately, like the conversation around education theory and practice is dominated not by data, evidence, and rational thought, but by hype, movements, and exhortations to drink various flavours of mutually exclusive cool aid.

    The narrative of disruption has propogated it;s implicit assumptions about the broken, defensive and intractable nature of educators, and education. It has had a millenarian ring. And it has been almost impervious to rational criticism, evidence and data.

    At least Thrun has been made aware of the flawed nature of his model, even if his response to those flaws is, in many sense, alien and perhaps repugnant to what the aims of education at it’;s best are. It may also be repugnant to the practices of those educators it sought to disrupt.

    Those most vulnerable, most in need of a leg up are those most ill served by the Thrun model. So, instead of sucking it up like a good educator, and being inspired by a desire to speak to that constituency, to give them the help you feel vocationally duty bound to supply, something in the DNA of pretty much every good educator, you strip them out of your model and focus…on people who don’t really need your help.

    The disconnection between Thrun’s stated aims initially, amongst which was the provision of education to just such dispossessed underserved masses – and his current direction change is startling – let’s not focus .on the underserved masses. Let;s focus on nVidia. – is banal, depressing and, frankly, something to be apologised for.

    The damage to scaled education models, online learning, and open education is possibly considerable, as well as the damage to the institutions, educators and practices so blindly and profusely undermined by the banal, hype-ridden rhetoric of the Udacity movement. Udacity. About as disruptive and innovative as your science teacher popping on a video and reading the newspaper at you from a corner of the room. Every day.

    Some of the people dancing on Thruns revolutionary grave are guilty of the same assumptions, assertions, and distant relationship with evidence.

    Digital native myths, Unguided Constructivists for novices,Connectivist assumptions about pervasive levels of digital literacy, assumptions about transference of personal online patterns into learning amongst students, assumptions about student preferences, assumptions about the effects of unstructured technology use in classrooms, assumptions about generations rewiring their brains, about the inapplicability of prior knowledge, cognitive load…

    Thrun made unsupported assumptions about pedagogy and prosecuted them energetically until they predictably failed. From where I stand, I can many, many others doing exactly the same thing, and using Thrun;s failure as more grist for their hype cycle mills.

  4. Pingback: Udacity, MOOCs, hammers, and the problems of education | George Veletsianos

  5. steffen schmidt, PhD Iowa State

    Is there any doubt that low income students are poorly prepared for any education from high school to college? Does anyone have a “magic bullet” for these “underrepresented” students besides improving their family life, reducing violence where they live, generating jobs and economic growth in their communities, have them attend great high schools?

    1. wiltwhatman

      Sure. But the issue with Udacity was that these students did even worse on Udacity’s course than they did in f2f courses of the same type.

      Majic bullets aren;t the issue. Udacity had to face up to a hard truth. Face to face, traditionally delivered courses did a far better job of delivering material and getting passes from the most at risk students than Udacity did.

      They made things, measurably and significantly worse for them. Especially if they worked together, online.

      It;s not that there is no magic bullet. It;s that Udacity’s solution contributed to worsening the problem. There may not be a magic bullet, but there is a way to not worse, even if you can;t do better. And that point seems to have been key to Thrun ditching his original constituency – those most in need – as people he counldn’t help.

      1. Rolin Moe Post author

        Well, you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater based on Udacity. The history of distance education shows a field that, historically, is optimized for people with prior education advancement and attainment. A good amount of DE work is entrenched in determining methods for these students, as part of the reason we have DE is to serve students who cannot access the traditional university for a variety of reasons. So it’s frustrating to get these answers. But your answer makes it seem like you are putting a lot of your eggs in the results of four courses. There are a multitude of other research projects out there that utilized MOOCs similar to Udacity that have shown success; look at the work of Amy Collier and Mike Caulfield on the distributed flip for just a touch.

        We know that the first round of Udacity’s work with SJSU was a failure for the students he professed to help. The fault is at the feet of many in that group…certainly Udacity, but also (and perhaps more so) San Jose State University, who took an untested, ahistorical and atheoretical learning model and put at-risk populations in it. That is a crisis of hyperbole. We should also blame Governor Jerry Brown, whose research of alternative models for learning equated hearing about MOOCs and emailing Thrun because he came first on his dossier. There never should have been a partnership for this when actual people were being nothing more than lab rats. Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote a brilliant blog about this at her website http://tressiemc.com/2013/11/19/the-audacity-thrun-learns-a-lesson-and-students-pay/

        But to say that Udacity worsened the problem seems as hyperbolic as the claims made by Udacity to democratize education, or by Coursera saying “Education for Everyone.” Certainly that course did not help. But there is great potential in educational technology when it is a field of study designed to address problems and not a biz enterprise with solutions in search of problems. I think this pivot by Udacity shows that their hype and panache was unfounded and did a lot to shift policy and attitudes towards education. But to be fair, those have been shifting…if not Udacity, then someone else.

      2. wiltwhatman

        Hi Rolin.

        I’m not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And I don’t think I make that point. My post criticises Udacity, the choices Udacihy made, and the outcomes for Udacity., San Jose, and it’s students.

        It apportions blame based on predictably bad outcomes made on those choices.

        There’s no comment made on the general state of DE, or online learning. Online learning is my job. I’m a fan – with lots of hedging and provisos to that statement, but I’m a fan, and I don;t make general claims that the Udacity experience undermines that field. I’m curious as to where I say that. It’s possible I’ve been unclear.

        I never say that MOOCs can’t be successful. I think they can be. I’m designing one. I do say Udacity’s weren’t, in the San Jose case. I don’t make much comment on whether they were in other, radically different ones. I haven’t read all the data yet, and, though I have some tentative ideas, I don’t state them, and I don’t mention any othe rMOOC providers.

        I do suggest that Udacity’s impact and engagement was hype ridden, and, given that Thrun struggled with retention from the beginning, has fundamentally changed his model based on what he sees as a product that was flawed from the beginnming, and still signed up as a disruption poster boy, this seems reasonable. I also suggest that their particular hype has pivoted, in part, on undermining traditional educators. Ironic, given the SJSU outcomes. Again, this is a comment on Udacity, and not general, and seems apt.

        I don’t think I applied my take on Thrun’s failure to anyone else specifically, apart, from suggesting that there are other’s making similar mistakes – ignoring basic pedagogical concerns. There are. Not everyone is. I don;lt suggest everyone is. But some are, and are dancing on Udacity’s grave as it were. This seems uncontroversial, and can;t really be read as saying all MOOC developers are misguided, or as a general comment on DE. I don;t think I said – as you seem to be suggesting (I could be wrong here – it’s just my sense of your comment) – that MOOCs can’t work. I point out Connectivist issues with Digital Literacy assumptions. Something Connectivist commentators and authors note (Rita Kop, Jenny Mackness, Dave Cormier, and many others note that this is an issue in cMOOCs), and the other claims I make – re digital native assumptions etc – are well documented in the literature, with some, or reasonable data to back them. But I don’t put all my eggs in one basket here. These claims are not based on Thrun’s failure. They are based on literature reviews and data, and a concern that other’s are taking similar liberties with pedagogy, design, and rigor. I never make this as a universal claim about MOOCS or DE.

        With regard to my hyperbole – re Udacity making things worse. I suggest that Udacity worsened the problems for the students who were their labrats – something Tressie McMillan suggests, and makes a large issue of in the blog post you mention. Which would seem to be something we agree on – and not hyperbole.

        I also feel I Udacity have made things worse for people working in this field – trying to deliver sound, well designed courses, ethically and carefully. Like Mike Caulfield. You may disagree with this (and this is the point I made) but it deosn’t seem like hyperbole to worry that the hype cycle, and public and institutional perception damage possibly done here, may be significant. Media outlets, educational organisations, and vested interests may make things more difficult for those trying to create good work in this field (I’d include myself here) using Udacity’s pivot as a justification, and funding and access for this type of intervention seems likely to be more difficult to get in the light of Udacity’s very well publicised failure.

        I don’t make the point re sharing the blame out. And you’re right. San Jose need to be asked questions. I haven’t checked, but I’m guessing, as a study was done, that an ethics committee were involved somewhere along the line, and it’s be really interesting to see how they passed it. Gerry Brown is also at fault. But none of that detracts from the fact that Udacity (and I should say Udacity, rather than Thrun – it’s an oprganisation, not a person) are at fault for delivering predicatbly bad outcomes to the populace they targetted, a populace likely (as pointed out in the blog you mention) to suffer more than others from just such a failure.

        Oh…I also think that Caulfield’s MOOCs may be substantially different to Udacity’s intervention in San Jose (the only MOOC I explicitly criticise).. I just started reading up on his work about a month ago, but deadlines have gotten in the way. Thanks for reminding me to get back to him.

        In short, we probably agree on most of this, and I’m not sure where babies and bathwater come into it.

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  12. Sunny (@gemelle)

    Hi Moe, I love this article you wrote. You put so many things into perspective here, especially the fact that plumbers DO make more than a recent college grad and with less student loan debt too.

    Now on to your article – I believe that Thrun may have been thrown under the bus for his attempt to assist San Jose State University with their “underrepresented” population. It was an attempt that failed. Sure it took two years of taxpayer money to realize it failed but considering how much taxpayer money goes into education anyway every year AND how much of THAT money is seen as a failure, I think the Udacity attempt was a worthy experiment. At least it received some mainstream attention. Now we just have to go about and figure out what went wrong, and I agree with you, it’s not the “underrepresented” population’s fault. But this may shed some light that traditional face-to-face classrooms may have it’s merits and that MOOC can’t solve everything. OR it could be that the Udacity paradigm for the class needs major revamping or shifting. OR it could be something else completely. But the failure is plenty of food for thought for all educators. We all learn from our failures more than our successes.

    I teach the “underrepresented” population every day for over a decade in SoCal. Different strategies must be used. There are so many things we take for granted that they don’t have access to or have the prior knowledge of. So as much as it may look like red ink in the ledger, it was a move that might inspire a positive result in the future.

  13. Janet Gutierrez

    I agree that all this criticism about Udacity as a failure because of San Jose State University is pure hype. There is a tendency to point fingers when failure happens and those doing so do not take the time to analyze all variables. Jerry Brown also did not do his homework to make sure all moving parts belonged together. Was it necessary to use the underrepresented population for this trial run a how MOOCs can function with higher education? As a returning politician, Brown does have a tendency to shoot from the hip and take more chances to cut down on bureaucracy, but he did not take into consideration the implications of the media’s interpretation with SJSU’ and MOOCs failure. I think MOOCs has an important role in the future of learning. There are many factors to consider when one decides to include AI or machine learning. Experts making the decision must include both human eduction theorists and AI/machine learning theorists.

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