Friday, November 29, 2013

A MOOC mega-man pulls back on the promise of online education

FastCompany offered a great long-read article a couple weeks ago about Sebastian Thrun, the Standford professor & Google geek who got so famous a few years ago by offering Standford-level coursework like Computer Science, Machine Learning, and Introduction to AI to anyone on the Internet who wanted to take it.

The whole article is here - I highly recommend taking the time to read it.
Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, the godfather of free online education, changes course

Thrun initially got excited because hundreds of thousands of people across the world stepped into his virtual classroom to study (I was one of them). Even though most of them didn't finish (like me) to earn the online certificate, still the scale was vast. the ability to bring education to anyone with a connection was intoxicating. And so Udacity, one of the largest providers of MOOCs (massive online courses), was born.

Th author traces how Thrun's initial enthusiasm took him and Udacity into a partnership to offer math and remedial math to San Jose State students.  But the vision tarnished when even students in those smaller cohorts likewise dropped out before completion.

Thrun's enterprise has turned more toward partnering with businesses to offer particular kinds of training that are useful more for employees than for undergrads.

What might we learn from this?

Well, first I think we shouldn't leap too quickly to any conclusion about online learning. The field is so young and we're just now beginning to gather some actual data about the students, the course structure, or the quality of learning.  It's hard to compare the results of online courses with their more traditional counterparts -- it's not quite apples to apples.

However, it's troubling that the most needy and underserved populations don't seem to be much helped by  the invention of MOOCs. You need more educational motivation, not less, to work through an online course.  (Many folks who commented on the FastCompany piece noted that online courses are easy for about the first ⅓ and then the difficulty rises sharply. I experienced this too in Thrun's class on AI. And when you hit that wall, even with online forums or teacher-mentors, you're left very much on your own.)

Put simply, we are too quick to treat new educational technologies as saviors when really they're just tools.  The core of providing a good education will remain in the hands of people who dedicate the blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen.  Especially for students who would otherwise miss out.