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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Oops! MOOCs Didn't Work Out So Good for Sebastian Thrun

From Tressie McMillan Cottom at tressiemc [The Audacity: Thrun Learns A Lesson and Students Pay].
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?

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.
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?

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.


  1. Larry, your grammar in the title of this post didn't work out good. Please fix it fast and correct it good.

    1. Are you being serious? You really think I don't know the difference between "well" and "good"?

      Lighten up.

    2. I know you know. But the title is painful.

    3. Sorry, I don't feel your pain. I think it's funny.

    4. Larry,

      Dingene is an American and therefore he does't get it..... Let it go... It's a Canadian thing....

      Any Canucks here to confirm what Larry ment? Come on! Larry is as Canadian as it gets after obviously some Mongolians and Siberians immigrated here for the purpose of further evolution....

  2. Larry,

    I agree that reaching the position of professor at Harvard/MIT doesn't necessarily mark you out as the best teacher for a MOOC, or even for old fashioned lectures. However, my personal experience of courses available at edX has been very positive. The introduction to computer science and programming unit I've just finishing up has been fantastic overall with an engaging instructor and well-gauged problem questions.

    From your post can I take it you don't like MOOCs? If so, that's a shame. I'd of thought you could run a very good course on critical thinking in life sciences...

    1. I teach a course on critical thinking. In Wednesday's class I broke up the students into groups of five and had each group come up with a definition of "gene." The groups reported and clearly some of them had thought of things that others had not. I then introduced several complications (operons, introns, trans splicing, junk RNA) and asked the groups to reconsider their definition.

      After 90 minutes we had a reasonable definition and everyone understood the problems.

      That's the best way to teach. I can't do that in a MOOC.

    2. BTW, if you are not a computer scientist, how do you know the course was "fantastic"? For all you know, some very important concepts may have been left out of the course and some of the ideas may have been taught incorrectly.

    3. I agree that classes such as that will remain the gold standard of teaching regardless of any future model of distance-learning. Indeed, I wish my undergraduate course had included more classes along those lines. I still think there's a place for online courses to complement the more teacher-intensive elements of university education though. And for those who can't attend university, MOOCs have the potential to broaden their horizons without getting laden with obscene personal debts. It will never replace well-taught undergraduate degrees, but it may help widen participation in universities beyond their current (fairly limited) base.

      I concede that my use of the word "fantastic" is purely my own inexpert opinion. I describe the course as such because in two weeks of doing the course (very much part-time), I've gone from never using python to being able to start identifying "pythonic" solutions to relevant biological questions. Whats more, the questions and discussions of the answers have continually tested my understanding of the material such that I feel confident in having understood the major concepts and themes. I may look back on the course in years to come and decide it wasn't all that "fantastic" after all. If so, I'll make sure to update my post...

      As a matter of interest, would you ever consider running a MOOC yourself? Is your main objection the ratio of students to lecturers? Or the poor student participation? Or something else? It seems to me that the general structure of the class you mentioned could easily be adapted for distance learning. You're clearly interested in engaging people in critical discussion of science, surely this would represent a possible route for such public engagement?

  3. Udacity never seemed to be the premiere site for MOOCs despite being an early player anyway --- that title is currently being fought over by edX (Harvard/MIT run) and Coursera (Stanford/Berkeley run, with contributions from other universities).

  4. How to define a good teacher and a good student!?
    These students from racially mixed poor areas are unlikely to be the average or above average students in America. They come from below average identities in segregated communities. Better teachers won't help most of them get smarter.
    I don't know if Ivy league profs are better or worse then the rest.
    They are supposed to be better teachers but these days there are lots of reasons for why they are picked by these schools and possibly they believe the kids are smarter and good teaching is not the priority.
    Indeed what is the purpose for a prof!?
    in the old days only he could give out the knowledge but these days textbooks can do the job. maybe the internet.
    The prof should be offering more then mere facts. they should be offering insight on how to think and discipline in how to investigate any subject .
    High education must be about intelligence being taught to kids and then their subject information.
    otherwise high education is no different then high school. Just more info to memorize.
    Higher education today is full of problems for north america from what I see.
    its not helping but hurting the people in important ways. We all worked to creatre a society for progress by education and rewards of it and BANG someone interfered with new ideas.