MOOCs Don't Work for Academically Underprepared Students by Udacity Founder

Much has been written about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as an important advance for making college accessible and inexpensive for students worldwide. Frankly, I have never seen an instructional technology drawn such high visibility from popular and professional media, embraced so quickly, and universal claims made about its efficacy, with little to no evidence. As a technology geek, I would be happy to read of MOOC success with students. But the walls are being to crack in this success story. The following report published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (based on interview through another publication), reveals that even one of the founders of the MOOC movement admitting that MOOCs may not work for academically underprepared students. MOOCs may favor the better prepared and also the more affluent. Does this mean that MOOCs would not be effective with TRiO students? No, there are many TRiO students that may be low-income or first-generation for college that might benefit from MOOCs. But for those that are academically underprepared, caustion is warranted. Watch for more reports on the efficacy of MOOCs. carefully read the reports to see for whom the MOOCs are effective. Time will tell.

The Chronicle of Higher Education: Sebastian Thrun, the Udacity founder calls his company’s massive open online courses a “lousy product” to use for educating underprepared college students. Mr. Thrun reflected on the discouraging results of an experiment at San Jose State University in which instructors used Udacity’s online platform to teach mathematics. Some of the students were enrolled at the university, and some at a local high school. “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Mr. Thrun told the reporter, Max Chafkin. “It was a painful moment.”

But academics who have studied online education for longer than a few years were not surprised by the Udacity founder’s humbling. “Well, there it is folks,” wrote George Siemens, a researcher and strategist at Athabasca University’s Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, on his blog. “After two years of hype, breathless proclamations about how Udacity will transform higher education, Silicon Valley blindness to existing learning research, and numerous articles/interviews featuring Sebastian Thrun, Udacity has failed.” “Thrun seems to have ‘discovered’ that open-access, distance-education students struggle to complete,” wrote Martin Weller, a professor of educational technology at the Open University, in Britain. “I don’t want to sound churlish here, but hey, the OU has known this for 40 years.”

Beyond schadenfreude, Mr. Thrun’s humbling has left some academics wondering who MOOCs are good for, if not underprivileged students in California. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently noted that the students taking MOOCs from Penn on Coursera, another major MOOC platform, tend to be well educated already. “The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most—those without access to higher education in developing countries—are underrepresented among the early adopters,” wrote the researchers.

In a blog post this week, Mr. Thrun responded to the fallout from the Fast Company profile by citing data from Udacity’s summer pilot with San Jose State, whose pass rates compared more favorably to the traditional versions offered on the campus. But he neglected to mention that Udacity had, by then, stopped focusing on underprivileged students. More than half of the students in the summer trial already had a college degree. “Thrun’s cavalier disregard for the SJSU students reveals his true vision of the target audience for MOOCs: students from the posh suburbs, with 10 tablets apiece and no challenges whatsoever—that is, the exact people who already have access to expensive higher education,” wrote Rebecca Schuman, a Slate columnist and adjunct professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.