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?

14 Replies to “Udacity & Coursera. Is It Really Education Reform?”

  1. Dan: I think as long as the working world is hung up on the credential, there will always be a machine to keep feeding the demand. If we still think credentialing is valid, then Udacity’s approach isn’t any more novel than the Certification “puppy mills” we saw in the late 90s, pumping out MCSEs and NCEs by the score.

    He may not be changing the landscape but he’s likely the catalyst for a more profound change.

  2. And I think the world will shift away from said credentials, as more people without them demonstrate greater mastery of concepts from such new formats. I like the idea.

    Education needs to change; from assembly line tactics aimed at creating a lowest common denominator (which seems to get lower by the day) to a more personal journey wherein essential concepts are presented relative individual aspirations.

    Connective is a great way to drive this. It’s something we’re actively developing at this end. When people get excited about learning something, you can’t stop them from learning it.

  3. Dan, I’m on my fifth successful career (physics research -> solar manufacturing company -> computer science professor -> IT consultant -> participant-driven and participation-rich event designer and facilitator) and the only credentials I’ve ever received were for the first. In my experience, the world is more open to lack of formal credentials than many think.

    In the world of adult learning, facilitated peer learning is the model that I believe will eventually prove most effective. As training-style learning becomes an ever smaller piece of what people need to do their jobs, we have to create learning opportunities that match actual needs, and replace those that were relevant for most of the last thousand years of formal education but which are increasingly out of sync with today’s needs.

    That’s what I’m doing.

  4. @Mark – do you think Udacity will articulate into some higher education institution at some point?

    @Brian – I sure do agree about the excitement part … but how does that translate into what many recruiters want, which is a ‘piece of paper’?

    @Adrian – 5 careers and you look 29, well done. I very much agree with you. Perhaps, however, there is an opportunity to create some form of formal, informal and social ‘translation engine’ that takes everything you have learned, are learning, etc. and outputs a ‘competence CV’ or something like that. Hmmmm.

  5. Don
    I think that web-enhanced learning could easily render “higher” education irrelevant. The current university model is moving toward a point of no return without some significant reform to increase the value received for the costs. At the very least, these are new viable alternatives for continuing education delivery. That model has value for those who are looking to sharpen current skills or acquire new skills.
    Having said that, I believe that there is still significant value to in-person, or at least interactive learning environments where questions and discussions can be held real-time, synchronously and not through chat windows or twitter-like windows.

  6. Though I’m a little late to this, I think this is an interesting conversation and – having spent a great deal of time in higher education before moving on – an important one as well. It is connected to a much broader discourse about what the intentions of learning is, and what it should be.

    Personally I don’t think that higher education will ever become totally irrelevant, despite the fact that there is a need to rethink how the current system relates to society.

    To me there are a few sides to this discussion: if we are talking about skills training or job-related training (leading to “credentials”) then there is every possibility that this could change things. If we move into a broader definition of “education” that comes from the humanities side – ie. learning is about creating a better society, and about getting people to think about the world as a whole – then I think it falls short of the mark. It can be a very valuable tool to encourage greater participation and engagement, and perhaps “socialize” learning. But it’s more a new form of delivery, and that won’t change the fundamental nature or foundations of higher education (or at least universities).

    Thank you for these posts. They certainly lead me to think further about these issues.
    Thanks for the post.

  7. I would like to point to a dimension that you haven’t touched yet. While you do talk about how online education might influence existing *good* universities, it would be interesting to note how it effects education in developing countries.

    The quality of professors even in the best of universities in developing countries is shaky, at best. Most students are left to themselves to find the best role-model they can find and aim up to. Professors are simply are not present, and among those present there are serious quality issues about their knowledge, outdated teaching techniques and false sense of knowing.

    The way these courses might help in these situations is, while enrolled in a regular university, students might be able to get actual education online, learning from quality material and group instead of on their own as it is now, and get traditional certification from the university. This can also provide a high benchmark for the students to aim for in their life in their quest for education. This would give them a solid base to rely on, instead of role learning from textbooks as is the current norm.

  8. Having completed the Machine Learning Class I can unreservedly say that it was a very worthwhile experience. I learned a great deal which I hope to apply soon. I’m currently signed up for the Coursera SaaS course and it looks to be every bit as good a learning experience as Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning class. I was able to watch the
    Andrew’s lectures on my cell phone which gave me the flexibility I needed to fit this course into my jam packed day. And since credentials were not involved it seemed to change the instructor’s attitude towards the material in that he was not trying to weed out the bad students but to bring as many students along with him as he possible could. It was great.

    I can see on-line education dividing into two sets of providers. I can see a group of lecturers/professors who are excellent presenters and course organizers and then I can see another group that provides some type of testing evaluation service to vet your knowledge of a given area. So you can shop around for the presentation that best speaks to you and then choose the level of credential evaluation you think you can pass. I can see the very high end credential evaluation service subjecting you to a more expensive but very thorough interview/examination process to evaluate your knowledge. And as a result this credential would be more highly regarded.

    I am so impressed by the experience I had that I just can’t see how this is not going to greatly affect the form of higher education in the future.

  9. @Kevin – very much agree. The ‘Connected Learning’ model (formal, informal, social) is really the only way to approach learning now and into the future.

    @Greg – interesting take on the type of learning in question. I too believe higher ed will survive, the question is more about the system of learning withn the institution.

    @AJ – that’s a great point … developing nations and their institutions may want to drive additional or deeper articulation agreements with the Western world institutions to drive quality

    @G – so nice to have someone provide feedback who was actually participating in the Machine Learning offering. Your idea is fascinating; who cares where you’re learning or how you’re learning. Maybe higher education can begin offering a way in which to simply qualify your knowledge. Blog post to follow.

  10. What about certification like CompTIA ?

    You get detailed information to pass the examination.

    You the examination (free or not) and try your chance (online or on site if better control needed)!

    If you pay, its for the examination. Institution could spare some spaces for those who don’t/can’t show.

    If teamwork education is required then you meet or do some work on site.

    Then you get institutions competing to offer the best teaching and certification reputation, oops!

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