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Apparently the paradigm is lacking a certain proactive strategic dynamism:

It is a good story, as well manicured as a college quad during homecoming weekend. But there’s a problem: The man who started this revolution no longer believes the hype.

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial,” Professor Sebastian Thrun tells me when I visit his company, Udacity, in its Mountain View, California, headquarters this past October. “But the data was at odds with this idea.”

As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.” Turns out he doesn’t even like the term MOOC.

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  • Lee Rudolph

    Good for him. I’ve met him at half a dozen (small) robotics conferences, and spoken with him a few times, though mostly about the Willow Garage (self-driving car) stuff, and never about MOOCs. Despite the fact that there seems to be no evidence whatever that my impressions of people’s good or bad character have any accuracy whatsoever, I’ll embrace confirmation bias here and say that I knew all along that he was the Right Sort of Person, whose honesty would prevail against his ambition if they came into conflict. (His smarts are not, I think, in question. I have no information or opinion on his greed or lack thereof.)

  • grrljock

    I have no idea why this was such a shocking outcome to Thrun. If he’d taken an online course before he would get how essential feedback (especially human feedback) is to completing the course. Automated quizzes and challenges just don’t cut it. So if there is no consequence to not completing the course (e.g., money spent, work towards a degree), then why put in the effort?

    • UserGoogol

      Not everyone needs the same amount of feedback. Some people are talented enough and/or self-motivated enough to get by with just the minimal “here are your grades.” I was never a particularly interactive student, myself. And you very much get the impression that a lot of supporters of MOOCs are very self-motivated. They acknowledge that some amount of feedback is necessary but might not appreciate how much people need.

      • Barry

        ” And you very much get the impression that a lot of supporters of MOOCs are very self-motivated.”

        Or think they are – the sort of netlibertarian who claims that he didn’t really *need* college; that if he had to do it all over again he’d just go to the library and get his education for free.

    • Lee Rudolph

      If he’d taken an online course before he would get how essential feedback (especially human feedback) is to completing the course.

      I’m retired from a (too) long and (fairly) disastrous career teaching university mathematics. Even though I came to know better, and fitfully tried to do better, I was never able to break myself of the conviction that what had worked—very well!—for me when I was a student 45 years ago would work for my students. I don’t know (do you, in fact?) if Thrun had “taken an online course before”, but I have no reason to doubt that if he had, he might very well have aced it, and not felt any lack of feedback. In the latter (and longest) part of my teaching career, I was constantly being slapped in the face with the wet fish of facticity concerning my students’ interests, abilities, and background—and I still persisted in my ineffectual ways.

      I’m fairly sure that Thrun has always taught only ‘the best’ students, for values of ‘the best’ that align much better with his own qualities than my students’ qualities aligned with mine; in particular, I’m fairly sure his expectations of what students in a MOOC would put into it, and what they’d need from it, were formed by observing sample populations that were very unlike the populations to which Udacity marketed its products. Now, of course, Udacity must have done some pre-market testing, which I (like I assume you) would expect to have indicated a need for (say) more feedback; and I assume (with less “of course” to the assumption) that they changed their product somewhat in response. But an underlying belief that the Udacity MOOC students were all proto-Thruns might still have had bad effects that persisted all the way to market.

      • grrljock

        Good points. Thrun and his supporters saw what they wanted to see. Funny; I would say that I was a motivated student, (though usually without a lot of interaction in live classrooms). Online courses are inherently boring to me, though. Obviously I’m not even close to aspiring to be Sebastian Thrun.

    • Mostly, I’m going to guess in-group bias effect. Dude spends all of his time around techie people who believe that tech can save the world, and who are so into this stuff that they’d sit through the course, so he thinks everyone’s enough like him for it to work.

      • JL

        There’s a real problem among a lot of socially conscious techies where the tool they know how to use is a hammer, and they really do want to make the world a better place, so they really want every societal problem to be a nail, to the extent of convincing themselves that it’s a nail even if it’s not.

        Add that to the fact that yeah, most techies at high-ranking schools are exactly the sort of people who are into the subject matter enough to take something like a MOOC for fun, and need very little feedback to succeed, and you get, well, what you descrived.

        • That and a hegemonic anti-statism, and you have a nasty cocktail of putatively progressive neoliberalism.

  • patrick II

    If it is free won’t there be people just trying it out? Wouldn’t you expect a higher dropout rate people who have less at stake from completion? I try low risk things out all of the time but I don’t feel like a failure for stopping.

    • This isn’t just about the idea of online classes, it’s specifically about replacing large survey courses with MOOCs instead of hiring live faculty.

      • patrick II and sharculese:

        Can’t you both be right?

        It’s very easy to try out (and drop if you don’t like it) an online course. Just like real courses, they require a good deal of work. But this is a plus for students – we get to try a couple different offerings to find the best fit. Comparing these statistics to dropout statistics in live universities is really missing the point. You can try more courses, so even if each student only completes 10%, that 10% might well be a full courseload (or as much as can fit into the student’s schedule).

        I don’t think online education should ever replace college education. But for certain situations it’s ideal. I graduated from college 8 years ago, and I’m retooling for a new career. It’s perfect for me.

        • It’s not so easy to just sample these courses if they’re offered for credit. They’d still count for student load, and students would still need to drop & add them like any other course.

          Don’t confuse these MOOCs with online for-credit classes taught by regular faculty. The high dropout rate for MOOCs would make them a disaster — see the description in the article for what happened in California with the remedial & basic math courses. That’s a nightmare for those at-need students especially, since it risks turning them off college totally. And also unlike in the past, nowadays a student with too many attempted courses as opposed to passed courses can lose financial aid.

          • Barry

            There was an ‘experiment’ run by Udacity with one or two colleges (in California?) where they ran some for-credit classes as MOOC’s – for full tuition, of course.

            The results were similarly miserable.

            • Barry

              (sorry, this is being discussed further down)

        • It’s not missing the point when MOOCs are being explicitly promoted as a replacament for in-person college education.

      • Anon21

        Then this seems like kind of a poor test case to extrapolate results to the real-university setting? These “students” invested nothing and had no incentive whatsoever to finish the class or do anything other than dip into the parts they found interesting. Neither condition would hold for actual students being offered an online course as one way of fulfilling a degree requirement.

        • Read the whole article. There are “real-university” examples.

          • Anon21

            Yeah, and they seem to support my point… much higher completion rates and pass rates as compared to the “free” version quoted in the OP here.

            And this:

            And when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging. A student taking college algebra in person was 52% more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class, making the $150 price tag–roughly one-third the normal in-state tuition–seem like something less than a bargain.

            seems maybe a bit off; it seems to be saying that the price discount was bigger than the “pass” discount, making it arguably a reasonable option for students who can’t afford traditional college courses. They were also dealing with a disadvantaged group of students, such that the headline 25% pass rate was not as bad as it sounds; if I’m reading the above part right (which I certainly may not be), even in traditional in-person courses these students weren’t achieving even 50% pass rates.

            It’s pretty obviously not going to a great option for all students. As a free product for people who already have college degrees, it’s obviously fine; no one should really care about “pass” or “dropout” rates in that context. And it seems like it could be a decent option for a university serving a more traditional college student population, where the full menu of services available in your typical face-to-face large survey course may be unnecessary for most students.

            I agree it needs much more proof of concept before being marketed to disadvantaged students who are already facing very high hurdles to obtaining degrees; it’s not fair to use that kind of student as a guinea pig without compensation.

            • They were comparing students at the same college, so it’s not a bad comparison.

              And it’s not saying that the traditional pass rate is under 50% – but rather, for the individual student, whose pass rates are going to vary normally, they’re 50% more likely to pass if they take the in-person course.

          • Sounds like the take-away is MOOCs shouldn’t replace college courses, period. But I have to say they have been very helpful for me, personally. I’m in a very different situation though, and I see the dangers of replacing regular college courses with MOOCs.

            • Anon21

              Again, I don’t know that that would be my takeaway. For college students coming out of strong high schools looking to fulfill a basic requirement, particularly one outside their area of concentration, I could see these being good enough for a lot less money, allowing a university interested in attracting price-conscious students(/parents) to actually cut tuition. But of course first, you’d want to test it in the appropriate setting: students who actually have an incentive to take the course seriously and who are not disadvantaged (by income and prior educational attainment) to the point where cutting back further on available learning resources is simply perverse.

              • Good point. But for that you need students who are both price-conscious and well-off enough to have the educational background/skills to be able to learn on their own. I imagine most students are either:
                (a) Disadvantaged, both educationally and economically, or
                (b) well-off enough that they prefer to pay for an in-person education.

                It seems to me that MOOCs have a place, but that the likely use of them is to replace education for the neediest.

                • Anon21

                  Yeah… price consciousness may start entering into the calculations of even middle-class students and parents given the increasing attention paid to unsustainable student debt burdens. Still, the really crushing debt loads tend to be more associated with graduate education than undergraduate, so you’re right that there may not be a large market segment of the type I’m envisioning (price-conscious but well-prepared for college).

                • slightly_peeved

                  Has anyone seen any good examples of high school graduates using MOOCs as a stepping-stone to other things? It seems most of the people who are saying they got value out of MOOCs, such as yourself, have already graduated College.

                  I don’t think the ability to learn a course well is entirely innate, and held by most high-school students. I think it’s a skill that is often learned at college. I think MOOCs simply do a bad job of teaching at a cut price. They may replace education for the neediest, but if they do they are a clearly suboptimal solution for said neediest. A far more optimal solution is a university system that has better support for disadvantaged students than the current US system.

                  Even if there is a niche in that area, I don’t think it’s a niche that is near as monetizable as Thrun, his backers, or other advocates of MOOCs require. Good on Thrun for being upfront about it.

              • Anonymous

                A lot of students in the category you describe are already using high school AP classes as the preferred mechanism to earn college credit cheaply and avoid large survey classes.

                They are probably in the least need for educational innovation right now.

    • justaguy

      I agree with your general point – when I made it half way through the one MOOC I took, I got what I needed out of it. But, San Jose State tried using MOOCs to teach real courses, and their failure rate for tuition paying students was 71%.

      • tt

        That is convincing evidence against the Udacity entry level math course (or, it would be if students were randomly assigned. Don’t know how that study was actually conducted). The completion rate among people signing up for free courses isn’t. It’s weird that that’s what Thrun and the linked article focus on.

  • Helmut Monotreme

    I don’t think MOOC’s are going anywhere anytime soon. I think that they are a bad idea whose time has come, in that regardless of how (in)effective they are, they are too close of a match to what education reformers want to create to be abandoned easily. If MOOC’s actually worked they would be a way to radically increase the amount of students being educated without a corresponding increase in faculty wages. That is the holy grail of education reform. It’s a way to knock the legs out from under the teacher’s unions and radically increase the size of the college educated workforce. This would mean increased competition (and lower compensation) for middle class jobs (especially jobs in academia). I think it’s going to take a stronger counter argument than ‘it doesn’t work’ to get the Michele Rhees of the world to give up on MOOC’s.

    • Lee Rudolph

      I think it’s going to take a stronger counter argument than ‘it doesn’t work’ to get the Michele Rhees of the world to give up on MOOC’s.

      Oh, that goes without saying, provided one makes the mistake (from Rhee’s point of view) of assuming that ‘work’ means something like “serves to educate a lot of students pretty well”. For Rhee and her gang, ‘work’ of course means “enriches us” (impoverishing teachers is a pleasant side effect, but not the primary purpose, of anything she does; there may be more idealistic “education reformers” who really don’t care if they go broke themselves, as long as they destroy the teachers’ unions and the teachers’ lives—but I haven’t seen them yet).

      • Barry

        “there may be more idealistic “education reformers” who really don’t care if they go broke themselves, as long as they destroy the teachers’ unions and the teachers’ lives—but I haven’t seen them yet)”

        Remember, for the GOP and the political right, that is an important goal all in itself. And for the looters, the weaker the teachers’ unions are, the easier to loot the school systems.

    • Precisely. Behind the polite language of “disruption” and “lowering costs,” the only way MOOCs could save money is allowing fewer teachers to teach more students, thus allowing labor shedding and speed-up/stretch-out.

  • I was at a Middle States meeting a few weeks ago. Middle States, like all the regional higher ed accreditors, is under a lot of pressure to encourage colleges to award credit for MOOCs or similar “content vehicles.” Or else they are under pressure to admit they are dinosaurs and close shop, as they are standing in the way of the “creative disruptors” and “innovators.” Was not surprising but also kind of skin-crawling to hear the MS president describing their totally uphill lobbying efforts in DC.

    Nice to hear Thrun is conscientious, but there’s too much to be looted in higher ed (& at the high school and elementary levels) for all this to just go away.

    • Right–Thrun might care about the actual educational content but the grifters and the Beltway operators don’t at all. And they are who matters.

  • Bitter Scribe

    My only concern is that these MOOCs don’t exert even more downward pressure on professors’ and (especially) instructors’ salaries, which already have enough.

  • Joseph Nobles

    Not a lot of religious studies at these places like Coursera. I guess God is not MOOCed.

    • ChrisTS

      Not much philosophy either.

      My students and I watched a few ‘episodes’ of Sandel’s famous class together. He was simply teaching his book and pushing the ‘discussion’ towards his views. I don’t know what the Harvard kids thought; my students were very put off. But, if this is what passes for GREAT online classes, I’m worried.

      • Joseph Nobles

        I do like to do MOOCs myself. But I’m someone who’s just taking the class about like I would watch a NOVA episode: to be exposed to the information in a somewhat rigorous presentation. I’m not looking for a degree at all. Coursera is trying to become an online university platform for a lot of schools. But that takes money and verification and I don’t care a bit about any of that.

        I’ve had good classes and OK ones. They had a nice intro to Intro to Philosophy on Coursera from Oxford University. It was rather good as a very, very, very basic introduction to some perennial issues. And then the last week’s professor introduced us to time travel paradoxes dressed in his steampunk cosplay outfit. So you get what you pay for.

    • mds

      I guess God is not MOOCed.


  • EthanS

    Urban Dictionary: mook


    Coined in the Scorsese film, ‘Mean Streets’, meaning a arsehole or loser

  • Tristan

    Speed Learn is slavery. Destroy the General.

    • bcls

      Number Two: Allow me to introduce .. The General. All the professor’s own work; he gave birth to it and loves it with a passionate love, probably hates it even more. That mass of circuits, my dear fellow, is as revolutionary as nuclear fission. No more wastage in schools: there’s no more tedious learning by rote. A brilliantly devised course, delivered by a leading teacher, subliminally learned, checked, and corrected by an infallible authority. And what have we got?
      Number Six: A row of cabbages!
      Number Two: Indeed – knowledgeable cabbages.

  • MH

    So, Sebastian Thrun created something different from any number of longstanding correspondence courses only in that instead of mailing video tapes of lectures to the students they were sent links to youtube videos. Then he had an unfortunate surprise: it failed in the same way that those earlier ones hand, and for the same reasons!

    More amusingly, though, is this section of the article:

    I was getting my bachelor’s degree in English–an experience that, I must say, taught me very little of obvious professional value but nonetheless seemed worth the outrageously high price…

    Max Chafkin, ladies and gentlemen, professional writer.

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