What We Cannot Learn from the Udacity/GT Partnership

Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education features an article by Steve Kolowich about the potential impact of the Udacity/Georgia Tech/AT&T online master’s program on the future cost of higher education:

The program, which started last winter, pairs MOOC-like course videos and assessments with a support system of course assistants who work directly with students. The goal is to create a low-cost master’s degree that is nonetheless “just as rigorous” as the on-campus equivalent—producing graduates who are “just as good,” to quote one of the new program’s cheerleaders, President Obama. The price: less than $7,000 for the three-year program, a small fraction of the cost of the traditional program.

By understanding what kinds of students are drawn to the new program, Mr. Goodman and his fellow researchers think they can begin to understand what competitors it might threaten.

Bringing down the cost of a professional program is an admirable goal, and this specific success could mean a great deal for the target population of this and other professional, graduate programs.  However, the rhetoric surrounding initiatives such as the Udacity/Georgia Tech/AT&T partnership rarely distinguishes between the target population of a professional program and the population at the heart of the crisis in higher education.

One year ago, Udacity pivoted its approach to online learning away from democratizing education for underrepresented learners and toward professional programs (I wrote about the decision at the time).  This pivot was maligned within scholarly EdTech circles for good reason:  Udacity had set its organizational intention at solving the cost problem of higher education, but its product was unable to adequately serve the population it intended to assist.  This inability to assist what Udacity called an underrepresented population of students was not surprising to distance and online learning scholars/practitioners, who have spent decades designing and critiquing models in an effort to better serve said population.  In the span of two years, Udacity arrived at the party, made boastful claims, failed to deliver and quickly left the scene, having changed the EdTech discussion without having provided any legitimacy for the new discussion.

I have not met Dr. Thrun, but I believe his intentions on helping to solve problems in access and cost for higher education are pure and well-meaning.  My disagreement with him is a fundamental one on educational theory:  I see education more from a social psychology lens and he, from my vantage, sees it from more of a behaviorist/cognitive perspective.  This rift is articulated brilliantly and succinctly from Mike Caulfield’s look at how the Thrun-based Google Driverless Car works and what it says about how the Thrun-based MOOCs work (for greater detail, see the transcript of his recent keynote at NWeLearn).  The manner in with MOOCs such as Udacity design learning has less to do with contemporary learning theory and more to do with the manner in which other for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix have designed their online offerings.

So when Thrun calls the cost of for-profit college and the marginal worth of its degrees a crime, the crime to which he refers  cannot be the mode of learning at a for-profit college, but rather the cost of the degree and the lack of prestige of those providers.

As the Chronicle article notes, the students enrolled in the Udacity/Georgia Tech/AT&T partnership are successful professionals looking to further their abilities; they are not at-risk or underrepresented populations, the sort of students at the heart of the cost crisis in higher education.  And this is the driving force behind the political and often practical push of reshaping the future of higher education — provide meritocratic opportunities for students who were making the existing system work, and leaving the underrepresented to try to make do with an amalgam of halfhearted options, often resulting in those students turning to the allure of for-profit enrollment.  If we continue to design our efforts and initiatives on the success of a handful of professional programs, the result will be history repeating for the large percentage of students underserved and underrepresented in existing and online higher education.


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