Udacity Pivot

I was reading the Fast Company interview with Sebestian Thrun and Udacity’s latest pivot. A lot of ink has been spilled analyzing the article and it content (e.g. here, here, here and here). Pundits aside, one of the most interesting assertions in the article is “Very few people seem to finish courses when they’re not sitting in a lecture hall. ” I am not sure it is the lecture hall that does the magic – but it is clear that there is a benefit in students being part of a community and there are benefits to actual physical proximity of the students.

Point 1: There is a benefit to actually being physically close to the peers in your course, and being part of a campus community

Another point that he didn’t touch upon (at least not directly) is the actual cost involved in creating a really good, engaging on-line course. Because of scale, the per student cost of a MOOC is much lower than the traditional per-student cost – but that doesn’t mean creating an engaging MOOC is cheap. The cost of creating a really good MOOC is on par with the cost of creating a documentary TV show, and requires a lot of the same skills. Because of that many so called MOOCs are just recordings of talking heads – which of course can’t keep students engaged for an entire course.

Point 2: Creating a good MOOC is really expensive, and many institutions and courses just can’t justify the cost. A low quality MOOC won’t replace lecturers – but can be a valuable study aid for students. I think this fits well with Ian Bogost assertions that MOOCs are marketing for elite schools.

So my summary of the Udacity pivot is that e-learning technologies need to focus on augmenting University and College education, not replacing it. There are two ways to look at the cost of education – one is the cost per student (which is the way the commercial MOOCs look at education). The other is cost relative to the educational success of students – and that is where Udacity failed (see the SJSU report on the trial here). Said differently – if a cheap alternative generates less educated students, where is the gain?

Clay Shirky made an interesting point a year ago in his blog on Napster, Udacity and the Academy:

“Outside the elite institutions, though, the other 75% of students—over 13 million of them—are enrolled in the four thousand institutions you haven’t heard of: Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. Bridgerland Applied Technology College. The Laboratory Institute of Merchandising. When we talk about college education in the US, these institutions are usually left out of the conversation, but Clayton State educates as many undergraduates as Harvard. Saint Leo educates twice as many. City College of San Francisco enrolls as many as the entire Ivy League combined. These are where most students are, and their experience is what college education is mostly like.”

Those are the students we aim to help with LectureMonkey.



About Jacob Ukelson

blog (mostly) about my work and technology. So far I have been lucky enough to have been working on things I consider fun and with really top notch people. I have worked in both large companies (IBM) and small companies (ActionBase, ConicIT, Dapper, eXeedTechnologies). eXeed was establish to remedy a failure of the VC model in Israel – most VCs were monetary investors, but most companies needed not just money – they needed operational and business guidance. That is what we provide at eXeed – not just an investment but also our time and skills as seasoned software executives. I have taken on various titles – CTO, VP Products, VP BizDev – but throughout my career a constant focus has been on technologymarket fit, aka customer development. Unique breakthrough technology is a start, but the product must solve real business problems. It needs to be something customers can understand, relate to and will want to buy. I have been doing this for 20 years for software products in companies both large and small.
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