Why We Shouldn't Celebrate Udacity's "Pivot"

anger or fear

Fast Company published a lengthy and glowing profile today of Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun, dubbing him the “godfather of free online education.”

Many in my Twitter feed balked at that headline, no surprise. Some interpreted “Godfather” in its Mario Puzo incarnation: Michael Corleone – perhaps this is my pop culture imagination getting the best of me – ordering the murder of the heads of other families so as to seize total control. But me, I can’t help but think instead about the traditional, religious meaning of the term: a godfather is the man who takes personal responsibility for the moral growth of a child. Either way, it is a strange and unsettling title for Thrun for those of us who’ve found his pronouncements about the future of education to be in turn threatening, dire, apocalyptic, and, well, pretty amoral.

But let’s not dismiss the religious angle too quickly. The Fast Company article serves as the latest round in MOOC hagiography: Thrun, the patron saint of higher education disruption. There’s even a golden aura around him in the photo that tops the story – backlit by the sun, Thrun is shot on a bicycle outing that he and the author of the article took together. The URL points to what’s likely the author’s original title: uphill climb. The city on the hill. Salvation. He glows with a soft light in the second photo too. Angelic chorus. And so on.

The article chronicles Thrun’s life, not just his recent MOOC-related capers – his early work on a nursebot, the self-driving car. It invokes the future – educational and entrepreneurial – that Thrun envisions for his 5 year old son. But much of the article, certainly the point of the article – beginning with an oddly written lede the posits Thrun as a legend “debated nervously by chain-smoking teaching assistants” – addresses his recent work in online education.

The headline suggests a narrative arc for Our Godfather: Thrun is “changing course.”

Just a few months ago, Thrun said he was close to discovering the “magic formula” for online education, but now he admits that Udacity has offered “a lousy product." The deal that the startup struck early this year with San Jose State University to offer remedial math and statistics classes was poorly conceived: "the results were disastrous.” (Are you a miracle-worker or are you just an alchemist – it depends on the storytelling, doesn’t it?)

So a change of course of course: Thrun says now Udacity will focus explicitly on disrupting job-training and not on disrupting university education. (The prediction that the next 50 years will leave us with only 10 universities in the world has been neatly scrubbed from this story altogether. Choose your scribes well, as the apostles all learned.)

And in other news today: Udacity is teaming up with Cloudera, the enterprise provider for the open source tool Hadoop, so as to offer training in big data programming, systems, and architecture.

I’m not sure that this is, as some have suggested, a “pivot.” Udacity has always been clear that it’s focused on engineering education. The startup struck partnerships with tech companies early on – it has sought to be a provider of high-(industry-)demand CS curriculum and a job recruitment pipeline.

And whether you see today’s Fast Company article as indication of a “pivot” or not, I think it’s a mistake to cheer this moment as Udacity’s admission of failure and as an indication that it intends to move away from university disruption. The startup is, after all, still in partnership with Georgia Tech and AT&T to offer a computer science Master’s Degree. The startup is still working with San Jose State University. And most importantly, Thrun himself is still the name most associated with the MOOCification of higher ed.

And me, I have still more cause for concern, as I am not willing to shrug off lousy educational practices simply because they occur outside the walls of formal education. Many professors have been quite vigilant about criticizing MOOCs foray into higher ed; I think it’s just as important to keep that up if MOOCs want to conquer vocational ed instead. If MOOCs – short videos, multiples choice quizzes, and robo-graders – offer bad pedagogy, then that means they offer bad pedagogy for everyone, everywhere. To ignore bad pedagogy simply because it occurs in settings outside the humanities or outside the college curriculum is elitist and wrong.

Thrun argues in the Fast Company article that Udacity never sought to replace “anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you.” (I think that’s what Coursera purports to do.) But I’m curious, for starters, why we wouldn’t want software engineers to have that background. What’s missing from CS curriculum today? Is it simply a matter of content – lessons in Hadoop, for example? I once asked Thrun’s co-founder David Stavens, incidentally, if Udacity planned to offer classes in communication or project management or documentation – three things I think a lot of engineers suck at. The answer was no, making me wonder what sort of career the Udacity classes were actually going to prepare folks for.

This is why the Udacity’s failures at San Jose State are so revealing. San Jose State is, after all, one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the US. SJSU is near Silicon Valley but decidedly not Stanford, not Berkeley. But we learn, via the Fast Company article, that the SJSU students aren’t the right students for this grand MOOC experiment: “For Thrun, who had been wrestling over who Udacity’s ideal students should be, the results were not a failure; they were clarifying. ‘We were initially torn between collaborating with universities and working outside the world of college,’ Thrun tells me. The San Jose State pilot offered the answer. ‘These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,’ he says. ‘It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.’”

Who is the “ideal student” and what is his (I’ll go with the male possessive pronoun here) relationship to a “rich liberal arts education”? What is his relationship to online education? Is it simply that the ideal student is not from the working class or minority population who requires the math remediation classes that Udacity offered via San Jose State? Or is the ideal students not to be found among the working class or minority students who do not require remediation? Seriously, why walk away from this student population? Do Udacity’s “ideal students” already have CS degrees? Are they looking for a career path at a specific corporation? Are they seeking some sort of certification to make them more hirable (there and there alone)? Are these “ideal students” women? Are these ideal students minorities? Are these ideal students US residents? Who defines "ideal"? The companies who now pay for Udacity's job pipeline?

There are plenty of complaints – why, a whole STEM shortage narrative – about our current education system’s failure to train enough people to fill the “jobs of the future.” But what exactly are these jobs? Are they the six-figure ones – the salary for entry level programming jobs in Silicon Valley? Or are we actually taking about lower-paying technical jobs – “spec work” – outsourced elsewhere, outsourced to “others”?

As Mike Caulfield notes in his take on the Fast Company article, Udacity’s move may simply re-inscribe an education pipeline that filters out rather than opening access and supporting more people. We need more students in computer science, so the story goes. But I think we have an obligation to do so with social justice and not mere hagiography in mind.

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” says Thrun in an incredibly revealing statement. In other words, the purpose of education is to have a job not to make one. To be a worker, not a manager and not an entrepreneur. Let's be honest. This is not the value proposition of Stanford.

So yeah, perhaps it’s easy for many in higher education to shrug and sigh with relief that Thrun has decided to set his sights elsewhere. But if we care about learning – if we care about learners – I think we need to maintain our fierce critiques about MOOCs. Who is the target audience? Who is the “ideal student”? Why is crappy pedagogy okay for “them”? Who owns these students’ data? After all, there are no FERPA protections if you aren’t taking federal dollars. In this framework, it’s all for sale.

And while I’m not a religious person, I have to insist that this is not how I’d pick a godfather -- a moral compass -- for future generations of learners. Thrun is not my idea of an education saint. This whole MOOC thing simply isn't my idea of salvation.

Image credits: Gabriel Calderon and The Noun Project



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