Need-to-know News: Udacity’s New Direction, a MOOCjam and Competency Learning to Get Big Boost

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it. 

direction signs
direction signs (Photo credit: emreterok)

1) Udacity’s New Direction
Making headlines in education circles this week is Udacity’s about-face, its change in direction, and new reason for being. Thrun interviewed for a lengthy article in Fast Company magazine published last week, shared his new [and apparently improved] direction for Udacity—no longer is it higher education, the employment sector according to Thrun is the best market for Udacity’s MOOCs.  I shared my initial thoughts in a post earlier this week—my aim here is to share with readers the specifics of Udacity’s re-branding.

Udacity as readers will remember was heavily involved in higher education as recently as a few months ago. Udacity’s pilot program with San Jose State University was a significant investment for SJSU, however was a failure overall. Sadly, the majority of the students, including those requiring remedial support, failed the MOOC classes. In the Fast Company interview Thrun was dismissive of the pilot, and the students’ failures. Udacity apparently has found a more compliant market, (and more profitable) and is partnering with companies or what Thrun calls “industry partners”. Udacity’s partners according to Udacity’s blog:

Cloudera, the industry leader for enterprise data management software

As Mike Olson, Cloudera’s Chief Strategy Officer and Chairman of the Board, shared, “We believe in Udacity’s vision to democratize education by making professional training affordable and accessible to everyone, and believe this model will enable us to more effectively reach aspiring Big Data technologists around the world who want to expand their skills into Hadoop. Together, Cloudera and Udacity are leveling the playing field, empowering anyone with the desire to learn to get the necessary skills to succeed in the modern data economy, regardless of where they live or what their socio-economic background is.Udacity blog, November for app Development

That’s the whole premise of our Open Education Alliance and we’re really fortunate to be able to collaborate with and other industry leaders on this mission. Whether you’re looking to become a Salesforce developer, hoping to use Salesforce more effectively to get your work done, or just looking to build something, this course is a great first step.Udacity blog, November 18, 2013

Insights: Quite concerning is the power and influence the for-profit MOOC providers (Udacity and Coursera) hold—not only with coporations, but with some higher education institutions, state leaders, and even the Department of Education. Worrisome.

2) MOOCjam with George Siemens
This past Wednesday, George Siemens hosted a MOOCjam, an online day-long discussion about a conceptual framework consisting of “nine distinct components rooted in an underlying foundation of technology and systems support and evaluation”—developed for examining Massive Open Online Course experiences. Among the nine elements are design, learner profile and pedagogy.

The jam was part of the MOOC Research Initiative, led by Athabasca University and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal for the session was “to gain perspective and solicit ideas that inform the community”. Siemens shared that the revised framework will be introduced at the MOOC Research conference happening in early December of this year.

The main discussions focused on three areas related to the MOOC format, ‘the course’, ‘the learner’ and ‘the medium’. In the closing discussion that I participated in along with ten or so contributing participants, I discussed the Framework from the perspective that primarily it would be used as a guide for designing courses, (from my narrow instructional designer lens). Yet there are other perspectives to consider for its application which Siemens summarized into three themes, what form?, for whom? and for what purpose? [summary paragraph below]

“What purpose? There was much discussion about the Framework being used or misused to design courses, turned into a powerpoint as the “way” to MOOC, or being misconstrued. Brenda Kaulback viewed it as a conceptual framework, George Siemens as a way to reflect the experiences, Debbie Morrison as a way to help people know where to start when designing courses.”

Insights: The Framework and research coming from MOOC Research Initiative will likely evolve not just from these type of discussions, but will be influenced and shaped by external factors—debate and discussions about  MOOCs, and the institutions and organizations supporting them. The Framework has great potential, though I’m not sure what kind of  impact it will have in the MOOC community, given the mighty weight and influence of the for-profit MOOC providers. For the most part they seem to disregard much of the research about online learning that has evolved over the last few years.

3) Department of US Education’s Push For Competency Learning
The United States government is apparently gearing up to announce another push for competency based learning according to Hal Plotkin Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education (OUS), United States Department of Education. Mr. Plotkin led a keynote address, The Role of Online  and Technology-enabled Learning in Meeting Obama’s 2020 Graduation Goal at the Sloan Consortium’s annual conference on online learning going on this week in Florida.

Plotkin said the department “can waive substantial sections of existing regulations that govern access to Title IV financial aid” for programs — both residential and online — that base student progress on “demonstrated levels of mastery rather than the tick of a semester or quarter clock.” The department will formally announce the initiative in the coming days, he said.

“Competency-based stuff would fit under that umbrella, but we don’t want to dictate how people might approach it — and maybe people will have ideas for us that are innovative but in a different area,” Plotkin said.  Inside Higher Ed

Next week will likely be another interesting and eventful week. Stay tuned.

Need-to-Know News: New MOOC Research Hub, ROI on Higher Ed Degrees, Ed-Tech Tools

In this ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series I aim to share noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform the traditional model of education.

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Icon image for Flipboard

Never a dull moment in the education sector, and this past week was no exception. The value of a college degree is the topic of much discussion of late, and the NYT recent article, The Premium from a College Degree, highlights data on the return on investment of higher education, suggesting that an Associate Degree is a better deal than a Bachelor’s. In the MOOC world, more money invested in MOOCs—this time not by a venture capitalist, but for a research Hub. And more debate about MOOCs; the value and purpose. Finally I share two ed-tech tools that are excellent applications for organizing web content and projects.

1)  The Return of Investment [ROI] of a Degree
The value of a college degree is in question, in the Unites States at least. As the level of student debt rises, so has intensity of the debate about the cost of education. Granted, this economic approach frames the discussion in a one-dimensional perspective, assessing education in economic terms only. Yet it does give clout to the value of an education, highlighting the benefits of pursing higher education for increasing one’s earning potential.

BUT, what is really interesting what happens when education dollars spent are calculated to determine the return-on-investment. A concept usually applied to financial investments. The study prepared a chart show comparisons on ROI of education spending and other investment alternatives, and shows the ROI on education “exceeds the historical return on practically any conventional investment, including stocks, bonds, and real estate,” [Greenstone & Looney, 2013]


  • Some college education is better than no college, even though in the US there are  negative connotations associated with dropping out of college.
  • Significant data supports the casual relationship between education and later earnings, but still the debate rages on about the value of education, many cite successful executives without college degrees. Other critics stress educational quality, stating that value is only associated with top-tier schools.
  • Other countries, like Britain and Australia emphasize vocational degrees. The higher education commission in Britain recently recommended more apprenticeships and college-based vocational learning to meet skills shortages and to provide more opportunities for students not on the ‘A-level-to-university’.

2) MOOC Research HUB and MOOC Debate
Big in the MOOC news last week was the announcement of the MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) led and administered by Athabasca University and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. MRI is a $400,000 investment with grants in the range of $10,000 – $25,000 each [details on initial submission]. Though I am pleased to see that MRI will include in its hub for resources, events and meets-ups along with its papers.

1371151702MOOC Discussion
And though the novelty of MOOCs may have dissipated, the debates have not. Last week the Los Angeles Times published a  two-part essay series, MOOCs and the Future of Humanities: A Roundtable with four distinguished professors, Ian Bogost, Cathy N. Davidson, Al Filreis and Ray Schroeder. Of the four, there was one dissenter Ian Bogost who did provide some valid arguments against the MOOC movement— several points worth considering. His closing arguments sums up his position succinctly:

But, overall, MOOCs seem to function first and most powerfully as new instruments of fiscal and labor policy, rather than as educational technologies. It’s perhaps time we stopped talking about their value as instruments of learning, and started talking more about what choices they are making on our behalf while we are arguing on the internet about their educational potential.  Ian Bogost, Georgia Tech [LA Times]


  • Though research is needed, it’s discussion and dialogue about MOOCs that will move higher education forward by determining how [or if] MOOCs will meet the education needs of post-secondary students and life-long learners.
  • A reader of this blog, Robert Connolly, made this excellent point in a recent comment, “The novelty of MOOCs is past. Now is the time to get down to the real business of what these things are going to become.
  • It is time to roll-up our sleeves. We need to determine how to leverage MOOCs, and other modes of online learning to meet the needs of diverse populations of learners; it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

3) Ed Tech Tools

  • Flipboard is one of my favorite tools for collecting content from the web to read conveniently on my iPad. Flipboard recently upgraded the application to be available on Android, Kindle and Nook platforms. Link to an excellent article on how to use Flipboard from edublogger.
  • Evernote is becoming my application of choice to organize content. I am able to  keep notebooks for projects where I can ‘clip’ links, images and more. Recently a reminder feature has been added.