Commentary Magazine


Topic: Sebastian Thrun

Education Revolution? Don’t Believe the Hype or the Counter-Hype

Only two years ago, in fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig opened their Stanford University class in artificial intelligence to anyone who cared to take it online. About 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up. Their class was not the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). But Thrun was no rumpled academic; he was a Silicon Valley visionary, associated with Google, and known for his work on self-driving cars. When Thrun founded Udacity to make and deliver MOOCs, and declared that MOOCs would drive nearly all universities out of business, many believed he would change education forever. David Brooks issued an educational tsunami warning. Tom Friedman declared a revolution; nothing had more potential to lift people out of poverty; nothing had more potential to “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Today, not so much. According to a recent New Yorker essay on the self-driving car, Google people not only work in jeans and sit on exercise balls but also like to say “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” So perhaps people should listen to Thrun’s most recent declaration, reported in Max Chafkin’s Fast Company profile of Thrun: “I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea. … We have a lousy product.”

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Only two years ago, in fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig opened their Stanford University class in artificial intelligence to anyone who cared to take it online. About 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up. Their class was not the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). But Thrun was no rumpled academic; he was a Silicon Valley visionary, associated with Google, and known for his work on self-driving cars. When Thrun founded Udacity to make and deliver MOOCs, and declared that MOOCs would drive nearly all universities out of business, many believed he would change education forever. David Brooks issued an educational tsunami warning. Tom Friedman declared a revolution; nothing had more potential to lift people out of poverty; nothing had more potential to “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Today, not so much. According to a recent New Yorker essay on the self-driving car, Google people not only work in jeans and sit on exercise balls but also like to say “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” So perhaps people should listen to Thrun’s most recent declaration, reported in Max Chafkin’s Fast Company profile of Thrun: “I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea. … We have a lousy product.”

Two disappointments stick out. First, Thrun, like Friedman, thought that MOOCs, because of their low cost per student, would serve the poor and underserved. But the data we have so far indicate that the people who sign up for them already have degrees. According to Steve Kolowich’s account of a recent University of Pennsylvania survey of 34,779 MOOC students, more than 80 percent of respondents had a two- or four-year degree and 44 percent had some graduate education. In countries like Brazil, India, and China, “80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population.” Presumably, those who complete MOOCs successfully are still more elite.

Second, Thrun thought that MOOCs would offer at least as good a product as traditional education does at a tiny fraction of the cost. But a partnership between Udacity and San Jose State University has produced “disastrous” results. “Among those pupils who took remedial math during the pilot program, just 25% passed. And when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging. A student taking college algebra in person was 52% more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class.”

All this is no surprise. The kinds of students Thrun and others asserted MOOCs would reach, the poor and underserved, are most likely to require the kind of guidance and support that a massive lecture-based platform is least likely to provide. As Thrun says of the San Jose students, it’s “a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

Thrun has concluded that the future of Udacity is in professional development, providing courses, like one for saleforce.com on “how to best use its application programming interface.” Predictably, those who were (justifiably) skeptical of MOOCs all along are saying I told you so.

But to declare the end of MOOCs is to place as much blind trust in Sebastian Thrun as those who declared the revolution did. In an inadvertently comic part of the Fast Company profile, we learn that Thrun concluded that MOOC problems are irremediable based on one important experiment, a statistics class taught by “the master himself.” Although Thrun deployed such sophisticated pedagogical techniques as trying to convey “his enthusiasm for the subject,” completion rates remained low. If Thrun can’t solve the MOOC problem singlehandedly, we are asked to conclude, then MOOCs are doomed.

But the high cost of higher education hasn’t gone away, it is still far from clear that MOOCs are much, if any, worse than big lecture classes routinely taught at universities, and MOOCs can still offer advantages, including scheduling flexibility, self-paced learning, and instant feedback, that brick and mortar colleges are not in a good position to offer. Udacity has rivals, including EdX and Coursera, who have no intention of abandoning the field. I do not think that MOOCs are as transformative as Thrun once did, but there is no good reason to dismiss them either.

Toward the end of the Thrun profile, we are taken to a soundproof studio, where an instructor “with wavy shoulder-length hair, wearing a baggy T-shirt and cargo shorts” struggles to convey a difficult concept. “Lounging,” (but of course) “on a beanbag chair,” one of Udacity’s course developers works to help the instructor, whose “only formal teaching credential is as an assistant scuba-diving instructor” get through a take. Perhaps the lesson of the hyped rise of MOOCS, and what is likely to be their hyped fall, is that we shouldn’t be so quick to think that Silicon Valley knows what is good for us, just because they are more clever and casually dressed than we are.

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