Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, one of the most high-profile private sector attempts to "disrupt" higher education discovered inequality this week. Thrun has spent the last three years dangling the shiny bauble of his elite academic pedigree and messianic vision of the future of higher education before investors and politicos. He promised nothing short of radically transforming higher education for the future by delivering taped classroom lessons of elite professors through massive open online courses. So what went wrong?Thrun's goal was to market lectures by "elite" professors at places like Sanford1. His new company, Udacity, was going to make tons of money by selling lists of successful students to private companies who are looking for talent. Guess what? It turns out that there are lots of disadvantaged students in introductory courses at SJSU who don't learn from lectures given by elite Stanford professors. Who would have guessed?
After low performance rates, low student satisfaction and faculty revolt, Thrun announced this week that he has given up on MOOCs as a vision for higher education disruption. The "godfather of free online education" says that the racially, economically diverse students at SJSU [San Jose State University], "were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives…[for them] this medium is not a good fit." It seems disruption is hard when poor people insist on existing.
In case you've forgotten the hype that Sebastian Thrun created when he formed Udacity, read: Sebastian Thrun Will Change Education. And watch the video.
1. My position on this is that the professors at Harvard and Stanford are not necessarily the best teachers. In my field of biochemistry, for example, we have direct evidence that professors at MIT do a horrible job of teaching biochemistry [Where Are the Best University Teachers?]. In my experience, the best biochemistry teachers are often located at small colleges where they pay attention to the latest pedagogical literature and actually read the textbooks they use in class.