If Even the Genius Godfather of MOOCs Can’t Make Them Work, Can Anyone?

Getting schooled.
Nov. 19 2013 11:43 AM

The King of MOOCs Abdicates the Throne

Sebastian Thrun and Udacity’s “pivot” toward corporate training.

Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University speaks during the Digital Life Design conference (DLD) at HVB Forum on January 23, 2012 in Munich, Germany.
Sebastian Thrun speaks during the Digital Life Design conference on Jan. 23, 2012, in Munich.

Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Sebastian Thrun, godfather of the massive open online course, has quietly spread a plastic tarp on the floor, nudged his most famous educational invention into the center, and is about to pull the trigger. Thrun—former Stanford superprofessor, Silicon Valley demigod, and now CEO of online-course purveyor Udacity—just admitted to Fast Company’s openly smitten Max Chafkin that his company’s courses are often a “lousy product.”

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

This is quite a “pivot” from the Sebastian Thrun, who less than two years ago crowed to Wired that the unstemmable tide of free online education would leave a mere 10 purveyors of higher learning in its wake, one of which would be Udacity. However, on the heels of the embarrassing failure of a loudly hyped partnership with San Jose State University, the “lousiness” of the product seems to have become apparent. The failures of massive online education come as no shock to those of us who actually educate students by being in the same room with them—and, accordingly, Chafkin’s unabashed display of sycophantic longing has blazed up the academic Internet.

But what is the big deal about Thrun’s pivot, and why are academics and higher-ed writers alternately wary and gleeful about it? On the surface, Thrun appears duly chagrinned that his brainchild, so proudly hailed in neoliberal wet dreams, has failed the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to learn for free. And on the surface, the new direction of Udacity, which is to leave the university environment and focus on corporate training courses, seems appropriate: Sure, go “disrupt” a bunch of corporations, they love that kind of thing.

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What’s got the academic Internet’s frayed mom jeans in a bunch, however, is that Thrun’s alleged mea culpa is actually a you-a culpa. For Udacity’s catastrophic failure to teach remedial mathematics at San Jose State University, Thrun blames neither the corporatization of the university nor the MOOC’s use of unqualified “student mentors” in assessment. Instead, he blames the students themselves for being so damn poor.

The way Fast Company has it, Thrun chucks those San Jose State students under the self-driving Google car faster than he chugs up a hill on his custom-made road bike, leaving a panting Max Chafkin in the dust to ponder the following Thrunism: “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. … It's a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

The problem, of course, is that those students represent the precise group MOOCs are meant to serve. “MOOCs were supposed to be the device that would bring higher education to the masses,” Jonathan Rees noted. “However, the masses at San Jose State don’t appear to be ready for the commodified, impersonal higher education that MOOCs offer.” Thrun’s cavalier disregard for the SJSU students reveals his true vision of the target audience for MOOCs: students from the posh suburbs, with 10 tablets apiece and no challenges whatsoever—that is, the exact people who already have access to expensive higher education.

It is more than galling that Thrun blames students for the failure of a medium that was invented to serve them, instead of blaming the medium that, in the storied history of the “correspondence” course (“TV/VCR repair”!), has never worked. For him, MOOCs don’t fail to educate the less privileged because the massive online model is itself a poor tool. No, apparently students fail MOOCs because those students have the gall to be poor, so let’s give up on them and move on to the corporate world, where we don’t have to be accountable to the hoi polloi anymore, or even have to look at them, because gross.

Successful education needs personal interaction and accountability, period. This is, in fact, the same reason students feel annoyed, alienated, and anonymous in large lecture halls and thus justified in sexting and playing World of Warcraft during class—and why the answer is not the MOOC, but the tiny, for-credit, in-person seminar that has neither a sexy acronym nor a potential for huge corporate partnerships.

Granted, Thrun’s hasty retreat from a full university takeover is delightful for advocates of actual education, and his new vocational focus seems like a great idea for its participants at first glance. But here’s the other problem, which is perhaps even more pernicious: The single thing MOOCs unequivocally do better than traditional educational methods is play to the distinct advantages of the advantaged. Congratulations?

As Audrey Watters and Mike Caulfield have both argued, Thrun’s new venture will still probably have a 93 percent attrition rate, and that attrition rate does not actually seem to bother its creator. For Thrun has implied that MOOC failures are chaff being separated from wheat, the herd being thinned in a meritocracy, a “feature” rather than a bug in the system, as Caulfield has put it.

And just as with university MOOCs, those 7 percent who make it are going to be the same 7 percent who always make it: individuals who are not from “rough” neighborhoods, who have easy access to resources, and none of the pesky “challenges” that come from attempting to survive in an economy rigged against them. The workers who will thrive in a corporate training MOOC are those who do not need a MOOC to get a promotion.

If the only university students who can benefit from a MOOC are those who can already afford an elite education, and if the only corporate trainees who succeed are those already primed for success, then what is the point? Thrun’s admission seems to have “pivoted” the MOOC to premature obsolescence. Perhaps the professoriate’s latest source of terror—our wholesale replacement by actors strutting and fretting upon a new kind of stage—will never come about. As Rees puts it, Thrun has done us “a huge favor by demonstrating the value of what most of us do every day,” proving “beyond a shadow of a doubt that real higher education can’t be automated.”

This takeaway has the potential to be monumental for the future of higher education: MOOCs reify, rather than break down, privilege barriers, and as such they are not the disruptive solution their hagiographers insisted they were. The problems MOOCs were supposed to solve still plague the current university, of course. But skyrocketing tuition and a faculty labor crisis will need a different kind of savior—one who doesn’t show up in a driverless car.

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