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The MOOC Backlash -- Udacity's Pivot

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Wrapping up my response to the MOOC backlash (if only to allow me to return to my more comfortable role of MOOC curmudgeon), it's time to look at the biggest story that has gotten MOOC critics all a-Twitter: the decision by Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, to "pivot" away from his original plan to shake higher education to its foundation. (A profile of Thrun in which he discussed the decision can be found here, and an archetypical associated backlash story can be found here.)

Given some of the bold predictions Thrun made during the early stages of MOOC hyper-zeal (statements even he later regretted), I can understand the desire to gloat when someone who predicted the imminent closing of all but 10 colleges and universities in the world was forced to scale back from revolutionizing higher education to the more mundane task of training corporate cogs.

For those unfamiliar with the term, "pivot" describes the way startup companies change course once they realize that the product they're in love with might not interest any paying customers, or a market they thought could be measured in the billions turns out to not exist.

As it happens, I learned this term by taking a class in entrepreneurship from Udacity (an extremely informative and valuable class I should point out), and while this change in strategy by one of the pioneers in MOOCdom is significant, it's important to first highlight what this move doesn't mean by dealing with some of the backlash-driven interpretations that represent the same level of uninformed zeal we saw from the MOOC boosters that critics so decry.

Previous pieces cover issues such as drop-out rates and the dynamic vs. static nature of MOOCs, so I won't go over that territory again. But given how much emphasis many MOOC-dislikers place on premature remarks one leader in this field made years ago, it's fair to consider the far more circumspect and temperate language that's been used by him and other MOOC leaders since.

This language, which stresses the experimental nature of MOOCs and talks about what they might mean both inside and outside the residential college system, does not simply represent consultant-scripted gobbledygook designed to ward off criticism from the academy. Rather, it represents important reflection by a group of educators from within the academy who both appreciate what technological innovations can do to bring education to more and more people while also remaining cognizant of the fact that such innovations must simultaneously serve to enhance rather than tear down the existing college system.

MOOCs (and associated programs designed to fit them into various college credit schemes) have been around long enough to suggest that even if experiments like Degree of Freedom demonstrate that it's possible to get a college-level education through massive open courses, that this will not end up an option of choice for most (or even many) actual students contemplating their higher ed alternatives.

No doubt there will be some energetic and enterprising students who will use MOOCs and other alternative learning opportunities to get a degree in 2-3 years vs. 4. But anyone that entrepreneurial is more likely to be attracted to programs like Uncollege which allow kids to give the finger to the diploma entirely, rather than just cutting down the time and money needed to obtain a credential they never cared for in the first place.

So rather than cannibalizing the applicant pool, MOOCs are likely to end up just one of many alternatives for students looking to shorten their time in school or (more likely) place out of entry level courses. In fact, if colleges weren't putting themselves at risk by raising prices at twice the rate of inflation, a conversation about MOOCs (or anything else) totally replacing college would likely have never gotten started.

Getting back to the Udacity story, a fair amount of tut-tutting surrounds the company's failed effort to successfully teach remedial math to students at California's San Jose State University. Which places them alongside every other failed program designed to increase core-skills performance by struggling students (including whatever programs allowed them to move onto college without knowing these basics in the first place).

Now I suppose the money that top-hatted venture capitalists or educational megaliths like Harvard and MIT have invested in companies such as Cousera or edX could have been better spent hiring thousands of math teachers to teach every struggling student one-on-one. But one could use that same zero-sum logic to challenge the value of spending money on anything (including the publications running all those "Down with MOOCs" stories).

Finally, cards on the table, I'm one of those educated, middle-class, suburbanites with time on his hands who seem to make up the bulk of MOOC students, which means that I could be learning the same things I'm studying without Harvard investing tens of millions to create really cool online courses. But who's to say how these courses are impacting the lives of other students who fall outside this demographic? And even we suburban dads might end up using what we learn to try to do some good in the world, rather than just indulge ourselves intellectually. Anything's possible, after all.

While I take a backseat to no one in highlighting all of the challenges and issues surrounding massive open learning, my year of being immersed in MOOCs has taught me that they have the potential to do a lot of good, even if they won't solve every educational problem on the planet. And while I'm planning to return to my usual perch of MOOC critic after the holiday, I will do so while keeping in mind some of the plusses I've discovered over the last 12 months, including:

  1. MOOCs have raised the bar with regard to the quality of every aspect of online learning, making it that much harder for future course providers to get away with substandard, unimaginative work.
  2. The culture of experimentation within the field means that creators of MOOCs are ready to admit to mistakes, learn from errors and improve what they offer (dare I say "pivot"), rather than just pretend problems and challenges don't exist.
  3. MOOCs have drawn thousands of people into studying subjects (including liberal arts subjects) long feared in peril, even as business and computer programming majors become a bigger and bigger percentage of the traditional undergraduate student body.
  4. Finally, MOOCs are just plain cool, so please please try at least one (preferably more than one) before sneering at them or cheering for their demise.