February 6, 2012

Udacity & Coursera. Is It Really Education Reform?

The name Sebastian Thrun may not mean much to you, but it should.

And if it doesn’t now … it probably will at some point.

Last year, Professor Thrun of Stanford University and his colleague Professor Norvig opened up an otherwise closed AI university course to the world.

Instead of 200 students (tuition paying Stanford pupils) they ended up with what is arguably the world’s largest MOOC when they opened up enrolment to citizens of Earth.

160,000 students enrolled in their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online version. For free.

Oh, and those 200 paying customers?  About 170 left the face-to-face version in favour of the ‘free’ online one.

Amazingly, 20,000 people stuck around the course through to the final exam. Wherever you sit on the acceptance spectrum, that’s a lot of students.

And no, it’s my understanding that the ‘official’ students didn’t get their money back.

Now the story gets even more interesting.

Professor Thrun, a previously tenured academic at one of the most prestigious universities on the planet has, well … discontinued his tenure.

Well, to be clear, he resigned his tenure role in April of 2011 to, as he says, “primarily continue my employment with Google, and it predates my online classes.

And what is he up to now?

What he isn’t doing … is asking Stanford to reinstate his tenure and become (again) a full-time professor.

Perhaps he’s an academic that recognizes the old world model of lecture to exam to grade to credential is becoming irrelevant in today’s connected learning world. (let us not forget George, Dave and Stephen and #change11)

Due to, in part, seeing “the true power of education” Thrun is launching Udac­i­ty

What is it? Udacity is a free (open) online learn­ing plat­form that will provide education to any­one that wants it. The problem that I see with Udacity, however is it looks to have all the elements of becoming the newest form of an ‘electronic bums in seats‘ model.

Check out the video of Thrun discussing Udacity at the Digital Life Design Conference. During the talk, he stated:

“There’s no turn­ing back. It’s like a drug.”

Thrun is about to launch Udacity with his first class entitled, CS 101: Build­ing a Search Engine where he will co-teach with David Evans from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia, although it seems as though David is going to remain tenured at his university.

Why am I so intrigued about Udacity?

      • Thrun is making headlines (some say again) in the higher education space (education reform perhaps?)
      • If it works, what will MIT, Harvard, Stanford et al do to adjust or combat?
      • And speaking of MIT, how does this map to MITx?
      • If it works, what do corporate learning providers do going forward? (eg. Pearson and OpenClass)
      • If he offers a full curriculum, and a student completes it, will an employer want to see the ‘special piece of paper’ (ie. the credential) or will they hire regardless?

And just as when Yoda said to Obi-Wan, “no, there is another” in Episode V, there now seems to be another Stanford example. May I introduce you to Coursera where two more Stanford professors (Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng) are offering Udacity-like education.

I’m intrigued to see where this is going. Is higher education actually still relevant?

But there is another question. How will Udacity, Coursera, MITx amongst others actually map to the Connected Learning model that I proposed and continue to position? It’s one thing to offer curricula online, it’s another to offer education that is part formal, informal and social. At this junction, it’s not clear to me that any of the aforementioned online systems are actually changing the system of education. I think it could be much more powerful if true social learning were, for example, made a priority in the integration of curricula to a student learning method like Udacity, Coursera, etc.

And no, iTunes U is not what I’m looking for either. Neither is Khan.

How about you? What are your thoughts?

Do you think Thrun is about to change the education landscape? Or, do you think it’s online eLearning redux?

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