Tag Archives: Udacity

Three Things Yacht Rock and MOOCs Teach Us About MOOCs and Yacht Rock

You mean to tell me everything that happened was just so I would record a song for a Gregory Hines movie?

Michael McDonald, Yacht Rock (Episode 12)

If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.

Sebastian Thrun, Pando Q&A, 5/12/14

Thirty years ago this week, the featured song on from the movie Running Scared, Michael McDonald’s Sweet Freedom made its way to #7 on the Billboard Top 40 (an anniversary I have not seen noted anywhere), an event which decades later was anointed as the apex of the musical genre Yacht Rock.  Five years ago this month, three courses in the Stanford Computer Science department were offered online at no cost to the general public (an anniversary already noted at Coursera and Udacity), an event which months later was anointed the birth of the Massive Open Online Course.

Is there a connection?

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There is no Open in MOOC

Coursera’s announcement to add Specializations to its roster of educational packages comes with a new price in many cases, as noted in Carl Straumsheim’s 1/29 piece at Inside Higher Ed.

To sign up for Michigan State University’s How to Start Your Own Business, for example, budding entrepreneurs have to pay $79 up front for the first of five courses in the Specialization or prepay $474 for the entire program.

When enrolling in a MOOC on Coursera, learners are normally met with a box asking them if they would like to take it free — giving them access to all the course materials but not awarding a certificate upon completion — or pay $49 for an identity-verified course certificate provided upon completion. Learners can first pick the free option but change their minds later, however.

The question the article asks — how does charging for access fit the mission of access to world’s best education — is a variation on a question that’s been asked for 4+ years now, ever since Coursera, Udacity, edX and others became the go-to mainstream voices on EdTech expertise — what makes these providers the world’s best education besides a mission statement and a platform for PR?  David Wiley’s quote from 2013 is the touchstone I remember from that period — MOOC as a concept, to him, was out of the barn and the acronym rather stood for Massively Obfuscated Opportunities for Cash. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

MOOC 4.No

Putty. Putty. Putty.
Green Putty – Grutty Peen.
Grarmpitutty – Morning!
Pridsummer – Grorning Utty!
Discovery….. Oh.
Putty?….. Armpit?
Armpit….. Putty.
Not even a particularly
Nice shade of green.
As I lick my armpit and shall agree,
That this putty is very well green.

Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning – Grunthos the Flatulent (as recited in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

I have long tracked the absurdity of MOOC developers and pundits assigning version numbers when discussing the MOOC.  The oscillation between MOOC 2.0 and MOOC 3.0 over the last two years was evidence I presented to argue the MOOC is not a tool or instrument or disruptive innovation but rather the acronym from which we discuss a larger sociocultural phenomenon regarding educational technology and solutionism.

Historically, software versioning had meaning for the proprietary sect (starting at 1.0 and changing with various updates) and the open field (building from a 0.x beta to the 1.0 indicating a complete and reliable product).  This has vacillated somewhat, but the meaning behind versioning progress has continued to involve significant changes to a specific product.  The use of versioning when describing the evolution of the MOOC lacks this principled or pragmatic grounding; MOOC 2.0 meant one thing to Sebastian Thrun and Udacity (for-credit courses) and an entirely different thing to NPR’s Marketplace (leadership strategy), while MOOC 3.0 meant one thing to Cathy Sandeen of the American Council on Education (the MOOC in a blended or distributed flip) and another to Anant Agarwal & Michael Crow of the Global Freshman Academy  (adaptive learning in a for-credit environment).  Forget that many of these sound the same (the Udacity MOOC 2.0 is pitched a lot like the Global Freshman Academy MOOC 3.0), and forget that in some cases MOOC 3.0 came before MOOC 2.0…

Actually, don’t forget any of that.  Remember it, because the inanity is the point.  The only reason we can have MOOC 3.0 before MOOC 2.0 (not to mention huge announcements from Coursera and edX at the same time as educational media tell us MOOC hype is over) is because MOOC has little practically defined meaning.  It is immaterial, hype, folderol.  I spent the first part of my educational scholarship life trying to rectify a definition based on both the scholarship of the educational technology field and the textual offerings of EdTech developers, and the result was a very diluted and fairly meaningless definition so inclusive its use offers no pragmatic purpose.

So, then, why does MOOC matter?  We say MOOC because it signifies an era in education and educational technology, a movement, a discussion, what some see as a battle and others see as progress and others yet see as Same Stuff Different Day.  MOOC in and of itself is a simulacrum; invoking it in conversation allows us to engage a very divergent phenomenon with some semblance of a foothold, to share our beliefs/values/ideas in what we hope to be a constructive fashion.

There is nothing constructive about version numbers, however.  They harken to the practical when there is no practical to the MOOC, they assume progress when there is no defined history or pathway, and they tap into an ethos of contradictory solutionism by using parlance of companies dedicated to perpetual upgrades and profit.  When edX and ASU harkened to MOOC 3.0 with the Global Freshman Academy (just six short months after Anant Agarwal said we had finally reached MOOC 2.0, mind you), I feigned disappointment that hype version numbers were still somewhat behind the times.

Ask and ye shall receive!  A Monday night Huffington Post blog by Otto Scharmer, MIT instructor and co-founter of the Presencing Institute, presents a self-described revolution in learning and leadership that he refers to as MOOC 4.0.

I have been running and/or supporting profound change initiatives for the past two decades. But almost never do changes, even when successful, happen on the scale that is necessary today. MOOCs 4.0 put us on a new playing field, not only in education, but also in the business of leading profound innovation and large systems change.

What does this mean?  I do not wish to be flippant, but having read the article three times, I still do not know.  The sheer volume of buzzwords and hype mixed with a striking lack of knowledge regarding educational theory and history results in an article chock full of unnecessary invention and basics as Eureka.  You could question their methodology for measuring success

You could question the newspeak level of language that would make ProfJeffJarvis blush

You could question the infantility behind their unique methodologies that have discovered a new branch of learning theory learning theory nearly 40 years old…

I stop at what the Institute represents.  It would be easy to attack the idea of the Presencing Institute; the website drowns in what I consider shallow self-help jargon, and the pictures in the Huffington Post blog involve people standing on chairs or a large group sitting with their eyes closed, which when mixed with hype and buzz can convey a very negative view of New Age as mysticism.  But presencing itself is not one of these negotiated terms; the word has a philosophical basis with Martin Heidegger, and while the institute’s co-founders do not advertise this in the About section of the institute, a cursory search of other materials show a grounding in daesin philosophy.  There is a great effort from the Presencing Institute to link its validity to the giants of thought in various cultures and eras.  Calling it a cult based on a blog in the Huffington Post feeds the same inauthenticity that frustrates so many EdTech academics about the corporate influence in the field today.

Schramer presents MOOC 4.0 as the synthesis of the MOOC movement, that how he sees social constructivist learning is the MOOC apotheosis; it is not just that we are on the path of progress, but the final stop is MOOC 4.0 and presencing.  I have argued the path of progress is one of the greatest obstacles facing educational technology today; there is no path to progress, and assuming one exists only feeds the dominant paradigm.

MOOC 4.0 is in contrast to Jesse Stommel’s discussion of his experience teaching a Coursera MOOC  (also published this week) which posits the MOOC journey as one not on a singular path of progress but rather multivariate paths where the journey is the destination:

I have designed half a dozen cMOOCs.  I love them all…but I find myself wanting to kill all of my darlings. And not just in the name of experimentation. But because killing our darlings is at the root of pedagogy. Never do the same thing twice, because the same thing twice is already rotten. We learn from every one of our successes and mistakes, and we encounter each learner and each learning environment anew.

I am not going to say this is the lens from which everyone should look at MOOCs – a constant evolution not bound by a facsimile path of progress but rather by the localized and networked needs of the learners as group and individual.  But Stommel’s piece recognizes there is a dominant interpretation of what a MOOC is, he negotiates terms, he provides his own resistance grounded in theory and defined by pillars of what academic educational technology finds important, and he presents in a way that will have access and resonance for that subculture and beyond.  It would be easy for a MOOC that (among other things) resists the Subject Expert for subject experts to call itself MOOC 5.0, pretend to have invented this approach, get ungrounded press and pub in trade periodicals and media mags, and add more meaninglessness to a topic supposedly meaningful.  Rather, by sacrificing pizazz Stommel has provided an alternative lens, one that does not believe in the sanctity of EdTech as academic nor as commercial but rather as diffuse and delicate.

MOOC version numbers are one of the many frustrations of the MOOC model phenomenon.  We should highlight the absurdity of versioning a sociocultural phenomenon and point to what they advertise as new as a lack of history, theory and politic that actually supports a dominant paradigm history, theory and politic.  When we stop there, however, we have only furthered the dominant version of the MOOC, cast alternatives as victims, and created a battleground where there is no battle being fought.  MOOC progress as described by version numbers is but a continuation of a longstanding dominant viewpoint of education, today handled by EdTech corporations but being ingrained in the fabric of educational sociology since Marx, Weber and Durkheim engaged the field.  It is not about winning or fighting.  It is about producing, experimenting, designing, playing, situating and localizing.

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.   Continue reading

MOOC History…or Lack Thereof – Excerpts from MOOC Research

Note: I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course. The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license. The following is from Chapter 2, the literature review. This excerpt looks at the history of the MOOC as defined by MOOC providers and developers such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.

MOOC history and MOOC influences.  The linking of MOOCs to historical precedents and influences is found wonting in both academic and popular literature.  Part of this is due to the relative newness of the MOOC, a phenomenon that caught fire at the end of 2011, but it must be noted that, when speaking about MOOCs, developers consistently fail to link the learning model to existing research, trends or prior histories (Bady, 2013b).  Rather, developers have discussed their work in the context of random opportunity meeting individual exceptionalism, a identifying it as a bold experiment (Rodriguez, 2012) rather than denoting or clarifying the role of prior experiments. According to the existing literature, if MOOC developers were influenced by prior efforts in online learning, distance education, and/or educational theory, those influences were tacit (Waldrop, 2013).

This is not to say that developers have not linked their learning model to other thinkers or models.  MOOC developers such as Sebastian Thrun (2012) and Andrew Ng (2013), along with the developers for former open-source MOOC platform Class2Go (Wan, 2012), have noted the influence of Salman Khan, a hedge fund analyst who left business to focus his energies on the development of a platform for sharing academic tutorial videos he created for a relative (Khan, 2012).  His enterprise, Khan Academy, is an educational website that aggregates short video tutorials based around common academic subjects.  Recent efforts to expand the scope and abilities of Khan Academy have focused on adding assessment tools as well as data collection for teachers to utilize in their own classrooms (Walsh, 2012).

Khan himself does not link his influences in the development of Khan Academy to historical precedents or educational theories, rather noting that much of his inspiration was based on practice and intuition rather than academic research:

Every time I put a YouTube video up, I look at the comments — at least the first 20, 30, 40 comments that go up — and I can normally see a theme… I think it’s nice to look at some of the research, but I don’t think we would… and I think in general, people would be doing a disservice if they trump what one research study does and there’s a million variables there (Weber, 2011).

The research Khan does cite comes from cognitive science, a psychological field dedicated to interpreting how the brain interprets information via thought (Khan, 2012). Within education, cognitive theory seeks to utilize the nature of the brain’s ability to store memory and utilize prior knowledge in undertaking complex or multi-step problems (Bruning, Shaw & Norby, 2010).  While important to the development of learning theory over the past 40 years, its current place in the canon of educational theory is as a stepping-stone to more modern theories, an important step in the development of learning theory but not the destination (Fosnot, 1996).  However, focus on memory, recall and learning styles inherent to cognitive learning theories are similar to the personalized aspects of MOOC technologies afforded to students (Siemens, 2013a).

It is similar cognitive research that Anant Agarwal, the director of MOOC organization edX, heralded as a “must-read” (Rivard, 2013a) for anyone involved in higher education instruction.  The paper Agarwal heralded was a 1972 review of existing memory-based research and a proposal for unique methods to consider information processing in context to memory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972).  Similar to Khan, Agarwal noted how his scholarship and methodology toward MOOC pedagogical practices was similar in scope to the study prior to reading this research, saying, “If we followed [this research], it was completely by accident” (Rivard, 2013a).

Non-Web Citations:

Bruning, R., Schraw, G. & Norby, M. (2010).  Cognitive psychology and instruction. New York:  Pearson.
Craik, F. & Lockhart, R. (1972).  Levels of processing:  A framework for memory research.  Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 11(1), 671-684.
Fosnot, C. (1996). Constructivism: A psychological theory of learning. In C. T. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice (pp. 8-33). New York: Teachers College Press.
Khan, S. (2012).  The one-world schoolhouse:  Education reimagined.  New York:

The Cognitive Style Revolution – Excerpts from MOOC Research

Note:  I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course.  The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license.  The following is from Chapter 5, the conclusions of the research study.  This excerpt tackles one of the educational implications of the study — the re-emergence of cognitive learning theory in the educational milieu.

1. Computer science replaces education research & theory.  In the time since the Delphi research study (note:  the expert study ran in October and November of 2013), prominent MOOC voices involved in development and surrounding political affairs have continued to advocate for educational solutions engaged within a cognitive worldview.  Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng recently promoted the book “Why Students Don’t Like School:  A Cognitive Scientists Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom,” in doing so advocating for the cognitive approach, saying, “[This is a] great book on applying cogsci principles to teach better. Loved this!” (Ng, 2014). This exchange, passed along the social media platform Twitter to over 14,000 followers, marked some of the first recognized link to educationally rigorous learning theory, a change in the histories MOOC developers have heretofore shared with the world. Since 2011, those at the forefront of developing MOOCs have either linked their structures with very recent technological phenomenon such as Khan Academy (Vanderbilt, 2012), or avoided making a link to the history of education at all (Koller, 2013). The link between the artificial intelligence and machine learning backgrounds of the primary MOOC developers and the cognitive principles at the foundation of their academic disciplines now has been linked to existing learning theory literature. This link suggests MOOC developers believe the principles they employ for teaching machines are ideal principles for teaching humans.

Such developments might be ideal if, as Marvin Minsky put it, the brain is a computer made of meat (Minsky, 1982).  Such a comparison may be provocative but does not withstand psychological scrutiny. The evolution of educational psychology, generations removed from the dawn of cognition in the 60s and 70s, has rendered cognitive learning theory archaic (Siemens, 2013a).  While cognitive theory remains popular in computer science and among some educators, the work of educational psychologists and social scientists such as Jean Piaget, Etienne Wenger, and Bonnie Nardi have identified the limits of cognitive learning theory while using its strengths to create new theories of learning such as constructivism, communities of practice, and activity theory, theories accepted within education as more robust than cognitive theory (Wenger, 2013). A theoretical return to cognition thus creates a rift in the field of educational research, where a focus on the MOOC phenomenon as a learning model substitutes the field of computer science for educational psychology theory.  Moreover, the ahistorical attitude of the MOOC movement (Khan, 2012) implicitly invalidates prior education research.  The end result is a whitewash of the field of education, where prior initiatives and research are discarded without consideration, and where the MOOC model and similar education initiatives can grow and thrive despite sizable concerns existing within prior and contemporary education research.

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