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

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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2013 in MOOCs – Which Event Best Defined the Quest to Solve Education?

As we say goodbye to 2013, the year after The Year of the MOOC, I remain unable to adequately define the acronym that graces this blog’s header.  This year Oxford Dictionary gave it the old college try, creating a definition more inclusive than exclusive and in doing so adding even more confusion to a rhetorical landscape littered with LOOCs, HOOCs, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, urMOOCs, SPOCs and other -ooc misfit acronyms.  Research and media remained focused on structural descriptions:  MOOC design, its workings, its assessment strategies, its back-end data collection and aggregation.  Developers continued to herald the model as education for everyone and an example of reinventing education, even in the face of research noting the model’s penchant for providing adequate instruction and scaffolding for those who, to channel Derek Zoolander, already read good and do other things good too.  Some look at recent events as the beginning of the end for MOOCs or the inevitable trough of disillusionment a la Gartner Hype Cycle, while others remain bullish on the MOOC and its place as a standard bearer for the future of higher education and educational technology.

I don’t look back on 2013 in search of takeaways. 2013 was a result of 2012, the year of the MOOC, which was a result of 2011, the proliferation of unique experiments in distributed learning.  There is an interconnectedness to it all, and for those who wish to focus on the lack of interconnectedness between the 2008 version of MOOC and the 2011 and beyond MOOC, both models were at heart about offering coursework to large numbers of people online for no charge. Continue reading