Friday, November 29, 2013

Thrun shifts Udacity toward lifelong vocational education

You will want to read this article on Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, the man who popularized MOOCs with his 2011 artifical intelligence class.

He has abandoned the goal of bringing conventional college courses to low performing students in developed and developing countries, and pivoted toward vocational education.

The switch was motivated by the poor results of San Jose State University students who used Udacity material rather than conventional textbooks in "flipped" classrooms. The results left Thrun dissilusioned -- "I'd aspired to give people a profound education--to teach them something substantial, but the data was at odds with this idea."

Thrun himself prepared the material for an introductory statistics course to be used at San Jose State. He did his best, stating that "From a pedagogical perspective, it was the best I could have done -- It was a good class."

But the students did poorly and Thrun concluded that they had a "lousy product."

I think Thrun's elite background led him down a garden path. Any San Jose State professor who had taught an introduction to statistics could have told him that many (most?) of his students would not have basic arithmetic skills and would "hate math." They are not Stanford students.

His response to this experience is to focus on industrial education, stating that "At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment." As such they are developing an AT&T-sponsored masters degree at Georgia Tech and training material for developers.

Thrun's revelation has produced a sense of schadenfreude among some academics, who were happy to say "we told you so" and perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that their jobs will remain secure.

But, even if many college courses are best taught in a conventional classroom or in a flipped class with a conventional textbook, those jobs may still be in danger. If Thrun is right about industrial education -- jobs -- being the true value of education, we may see more and more students foregoing college altogether for offerings like Thrun's.

Those San Jose students want jobs and they are increasingly aware of the rising direct cost and opportunity cost of a college degree.

When speaking of his five-year old son, Thrun reveals his vision of the future of education, saying "I hope he can hit the workforce relatively early and engage in lifelong education -- I wish to do away with the idea of spending one big chunk of time learning."

Udacity has already moved into workforce training, and I think they have been working on lifelong learning all along.
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Update 11/30/2013
There is a long discussion of this post on Slashdot.
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Update 3/25/2014

As Udacity moves away from university education, Coursera hires a university administrator as CEO -- Richard C. Levin, who was president of Yale University for 20 years. No one seems to have figured out the university-course business model, but Levin's international experience indicates that he sees a global market -- for students and teachers.