Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs Not Effective for Undergraduate Education After All…

“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.” November 14, @FastCompany

The cat-is-out-of-the bag—Sebastian Thurn, founder of Udacity the MOOC provider that started MOOC mania two years ago states that MOOCs are not an effective modality for teaching undergraduate students after all.  Seriously. To most of us, this is not new news. I find Thrun’s admission most disturbing, not because the statement isn’t true—but it’s all that’s happened over the recent months that Thrun’s company has been responsible for including, the vast amount of funds spent on a pilot project at San Jose University, the students that failed their courses in this Udacity project, the sweeping statements about the power of the MOOC model to transform higher education, etc., etc.

The announcement, (or perhaps it’s more fitting to call it a confession) came last week in an article published in Fast Co, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather of Free Online Education, Changes Course. The story features an interview with Thrun  [most of which was conducted during an intense bike ride] and is getting much press in the blogosphere. Many deride the fact that the article’s author Max Chafkin, doesn’t appear to have challenged Thrun’s sudden change in his core beliefs about MOOCs, nor his shift in views of higher education, which now appears to be as a vehicle for career preparation.

“We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you,” he [Sebastian Thrun] says. He adds that the university system will most likely evolve to shorter-form courses that focus more on professional development. “The medium will change,” he says.” November 2013,@FastCompany

Admitting mistakes, changing direction and re-focusing  efforts in times of rapid change is not a negative, but a necessity. One could argue that Thrun is doing just that — demonstrating adaptability and responsiveness.  However Thrun’s statements go beyond changing direction, they are disturbing, primarily because it appears it’s the pressure of being a CEO of a for-profit company that is behind his flip-flopping. Udacity is a for-profit venture, with venture capitalist behind it expecting a return on their investment, and sooner rather than later.

As recently as three months ago, Thrun said this…

“The thing I’m insanely proud of right now is I think we’ve found the magic formula,” he said in an interview last week. “Had you asked me three months ago, I wouldn’t have said that. I’m not at the point where everything is great. There are a lot of things to be improved, a lot of mistakes we’re making, but I see it coming together.”   August, 2013, Udacity CEO says Magic Formula Emerging

And this statement made four months ago in response to a question asked during an interview with MIT Technology Review IT Editor Rachel Metz at Udacity’s office in California:

Where do you hope Udacity is five years from now?

I think we’ll be just like a university, but we’ll be a university for the 21st century.   July, 2013, Sebastian Thrun on the Future of Learning

I stop here, as many other fellow bloggers and educators have shared their insightful thoughts and perspectives on this most startling announcement (links below). Though I’ll close with one of Thrun’s most revealing statements that demonstrates his shift from an academic perspective on the value of education, to a CEO-perspective of a for-profit company.

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” Sebastian ThrunNovember 2013, @FastCompany



25 thoughts on “Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs Not Effective for Undergraduate Education After All…

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    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Anando – how true! A big problem was they did not consider who there learners were – the product wasn’t lousy necessarily, as Thrun said, it was the wrong learning modality for the San Jose students he mentions.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


        1. Anando Purutama

          Many Questions to Udacity:
          Who are the valuable customers?
          Who are the less valuable customers?
          Which messages should we send to which customers at which time?
          -Know who your customers are and what they buy.
          -Aim to determine marketing communication based on past purchases.
          -Constantly determine and leverage individual customer value.

          A Customer Centric Organisation:
          a) Has a clear, customer-centred vision with top down support.
          b) Makes every business decision in alignment with this vision.
          c) Knows what customers expect because it asks them.
          d)Tailors its products and services to what customers want.
          e) Meets customer expectations with every interaction.
          f) Regularly measures customer satisfaction and changes accordingly.
          g) Clearly communicates the importance of customer centric behaviour to every employee.
          h) Measures and rewards customer centric competencies and performance.
          i) Employs and promotes people who support customer centricity.
          j) Expects suppliers and partners to model customer centric behaviours.

          “Customer centricity requires the company to be willing and able to change its organizational design, performance metrics, and employee/distributor incentive structures to focus on this long-run value creation/delivering process.”
          If the shoe fits … In challenging markets, understanding the client’s perspective is doubly important.


          1. Debbie Morrison Post author

            These are great questions for Udacity – and your points under a ‘customer-centric’ organization remind me of a company does that does address all of these points here in the United States is They are customer-centric – there whole model revovles around the customer. Here is an good article that provides a glimpse of the methods.

            What if we change your quote at the end, and replace it with higher ed institution?

            Thanks for your comments! 🙂


  14. Pingback: Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs Not Effective for Undergraduate Education After All… | online learning insights « Ana Loução

  15. Pingback: Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs Not Effective for Undergraduate Education After All… | online learning insights « Ana Loução

    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Shawn,
      Nice to hear from you again! Yes — wasn’t it? Thrun after all was a tenured professor at one of the most highly regarded universities in the United States, and yet his statement is counter-intuitive to what these institutions stand for. Shocking is right.


  16. Pingback: Have MOOCs failed? | Writing History and other things

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