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

Salesforce.com for app Development

That’s the whole premise of our Open Education Alliance and we’re really fortunate to be able to collaborate with salesforce.com 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.

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

Closing
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

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