The Udacity of Audacity (or “Education for Uber”)

Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.

– Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (1983)

When I quote this passage from Worstward Ho, the somewhat obscure yet recently rejuvenated Samuel Beckett novella, the meaning of the famous lines in the preceding paragraph, those on the forearm of Stan Wawrinka and on the lips of Richard Branson, Elon Musk and other entrepreneurs, change entirely.

Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.

Beckett was not promising a modern Valhalla through x quick changes to everyday life; for him there was no Valhalla, no simple fixes or quick changes or solutions, but only masks on the essence of the human condition.  How this message ever ended up the stuff of motivational posters could be considered an abomination of Beckett, but Beckett probably would have found the wanton misinterpretation ironic, amusing and evidence of the failure of the human condition to adequately express itself in form.

What Beckett holds is cultural authority; his name is recognizable regardless of any context of his work or contribution to society or culture.  The same is true for Sebastian Thrun, the pater familius of CS 271, the 2011 Stanford Computer Science course in which over 160,000 students registered for a free online version of the course that became the flagship for what we today call a MOOC.  Thrun has a roster of designations (Stanford professor, Google scholar, developer of the driver-less car), and these designations are leveraged in those articles where he is presented as an education expert who is the CEO of Udacity, his educational start-up developed after CS 271.  We can read about Thrun’s impressive AI background in education-focused write-ups from Wired, FastCompany, the Smithsonian, and this week in MIT’s Technology Review and Financial Times.  Sebastian Thrun’s AI work is impressive.  But, in the same way Beckett’s space as a noted 20th Century Author has been used to sell motivation, Thrun’s AI background is used to sell a specific view of education, and the hagiography does not align with the reality.

The MIT Technology Review & Financial Times pieces are the 2015 version of Wired’s 2012 piece, the Smithsonian’s 2012 piece, and FastCompany’s 2013 piece on Thrun:  a celebration of the work of an AI expert on the problem of education.  Some parts have remained the same:  talk of challenging the education establishment, the celebration of the newest feature of Udacity as a company.  Others have adapted to the environment:  learning-by-doing is said to the point of a mantra, replacing 2012/2013’s deification of the short video.  An educational mantra of learning-by-doing is a good mantra, but the problem comes when we take the simplified repetition and look at it not only with the rest of this interview, but across the array of Sebastian Thrun interviews and initiatives and failures pivots.  A few Thrun quotes from the MIT Technology Review article highlight a trove of problems:

Education should cost money because of the service rendered. So we decided to have two paths. Access to our content basically costs us nothing—it costs us like 50 cents a student, and we decided to just give this away. If you are in central Africa and you really want to get an education, anything that is easily replicable for us we give to you for free.

We chose to go to industry because we believe the future of learning is lifelong and not just one-time. We have data from the Department of Labor Statistics that says the average employment in a job in 2002 was 4.6 years. We know that is shrinking. We know people have seven different careers over their lifetime. As a result, we needed to do two things: make the learning unit smaller than the conventional degree and make it fresher than a traditional degree.

Colleges are very focused on the ages from 17 to maybe 24, but people live 70 to 80 years now in many countries. For people in their 30s, their 40s, military people coming back [to civilian work], women raising children who want to reënter the workforce, all huge factors in the workforce—for those people there’s no educational venues that I know of that work in this country.

Just 2.5 years ago, Sebastian Thrun’s mission was quite different, focused on helping students become college-ready through SJSU Plus.  Today, college is the obstacle Udacity faces (with the exception of the person in Central Africa who really wants an education and will put forth the effort to weld it together via Udacity’s freemium materials).  Eight months after the 2013 SJSU/Udacity partnership was heralded, results showed that those students Thrun specifically referenced as those whom Udacity could help were in fact those most harmed by the course.  Udacity attempted to spin the results by noting the population in these courses was not college-ready, conveniently forgetting that the original purpose of SJSU Plus was to help students become college-ready.  By the end of 2013, the partnership had been dismantled, with SJSU declining comment and directing future partnership questions to Udacity.

We could argue plausible deniability for Udacity, in doing so note that the nearly three years since SJSU Plus fizzled have resulted in research and contemplation, which has led Udacity to move in a direction where they can provide a direct benefit.  This argument would provide a negotiation of some sort of positive result from the SJSU fiasco.  Unfortunately,  the history does not align.  Thrun fuses the idea of higher education with the guise of the elite institution and sees no connection for the working professional or non-traditional student to engage, as well as how Udacity is the group to finally address this problem.  This ignores

  1. The political, social and cultural history of creating avenues to higher education for non-traditional populations (G.I. Bill, Pell Grants, Higher Education Act of 1965)
  2. Distance and online education scholarship as borne of a desire to provide outreach for non-traditional populations, whether through theory (andragogy, heutagogy), program facilitation (Open University, Athabasca), or augmentation of existing models
  3. The belief that higher education means more than job placement or career skills.  College-ready in terms of the Higher Education Act meant, in the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson, “…a way to deeper personal fulfillment, greater personal productivity, and increased personal reward.”  Higher education was intended to provide the pathway for people to become lifelong learners, not a mechanism for people to plug into when they need new training.

External factors and historical precedents do not seem to affect the manner of business at Udacity or, to be more general, in Silicon Valley.  This cannot be written off as postmodernism (whether we use that term as defined or as a pejorative), and it’s not just neoliberalism (which is almost entirely seen as a pejorative today).  It’s a confluence of ahistoricism, solutionism, and nullification, all in an era where authority is created by splicing fact into narrative and selling it as Truth (see TED).  Udacity can continuously rebrand pivot while remaining at the forefront of innovation. It can purport its wares and deflect any criticism through promoting its self-proclaimed novelty, while at the same time using the historical as an inherency to act rather than a foundation upon which to consider its actions.  Failing fast means there is no time to for consideration but only for creation; artifacts become pawns in promoting or sustaining the creation rather than the bedrock for shaping it.  This is what leads to proclamations such as a future of only 10 institutions of higher education, or there are no experts in online learning.  Udacity can fail at its mission, put the failure on the user rather than the company, and promote a new mission dressed as if it was the mission all along.  If it is able to reach success on its shifting definition, it could then go back and point to the failures along the way as mere obstacles to the end goal.

Left in the lurch between the abstracted Udacity and the contextualized Udacity is the throw up for good – the promises of democratized education, the practical roll-out of SJSU Plus, the monies and energies and time state and federal governments devoted to apparatuses  supporting the tsunami of MOOCed higher education we are still waiting for.  Paraphrasing or invoking Samuel Beckett to promote and justify success through repeated failures doesn’t simply make any original point go away. Failing the people you propose to help and moving on while also failing in an already failing educational system are failures we have seen enough of.  Maybe the audacity of Udacity is failing to fail better.

2 thoughts on “The Udacity of Audacity (or “Education for Uber”)

  1. lindax

    I think it is also worth considering what MOOCs are/can be/should be in the context of today’s community college. Its mission also has evolved over time, in part in response to similar interests in creating alternative pathways to four year degree-granting institutions. In California, the community college is geared toward and sells itself publicly as the two-year transfer route to the university. It’s nearly impossible to do a one-off course at today’s community college. I love Beckett (English major here), but all this brings to mind the Talking Heads tune, We’re on a Road to Nowhere. (

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      My thing with MOOCs is mostly about what the conversation means in terms of policy and action. Udacity was asked to solve the ‘education crisis’ in California, was paid, presented a model, sold it as failsafe and it blew up. Within 10 months they had *pivoted* away from helping students become college-ready and towards corporate work. That’s fine, but now they are talking disruption again and lifelong learning (that’s a term that need be retired) as if their approach is revolutionary. Their approach is fine in the corporate, but the mixture of corporate and public as proposed in the recent Thrun articles is troublesome. I agree w/ a need for one-off courses, transferrable courses, community college remembering the ‘community’ part more than state policies seem to engage. I do not want Udacity running that conversation, however; they had enough trouble with the Cal State system.


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