There was a big story in MOOC-world last week, which the mainstream press has surprisingly yet to pick up on; namely, that Udacity, one of the three big corporate MOOC players, has just left the building.
Udacity, if you recall, was created by one Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist at Stanford. It was he who kicked off the current MOOC craze by opening up one of his computer science classes to the world, and then finding out that 160,000 people around the world had signed up. Thrun left Stanford to start Udacity which, along with Coursera and EdX, has been part of the Holy Trinity of the MOOC revolution.
Last Thursday, Fast Company Magazine put out a story (hagiography?) on Thrun, which contained some staggering statements from the man himself, including:
(on looking at data on drop-outs) “We don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product”.
(on providing remedial education) “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives… it’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit”.
(on the value of Udacity courses) “We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you”.
From a guy who cockily said he was on the verge of finding a “magic formula” for education, and that by 2060, thanks to MOOCs, there would only be 10 universities, this is some funny stuff.
There has already been much excellent commentary about this article: Bonnie Stewart, Mike Caulfield, and of course Audrey Watters. They are all good (read them!), but George Siemens is the one I think who gets closest to the heart of the issue: Udacity’s switch from higher education to corporate training wasn’t due to the realization that their product wasn’t very good, it was caused by the fact that the company wasn’t making any money.
Like everything else, MOOCs need money to survive, and providing them for free is a really bad way to generate income. The venture capitalists (VCs) supporting Udacity clearly came to the conclusion that the Udacity/Coursera strategy of losing money on every customer, and making it up on volume, wasn’t going to get them anywhere – hence the shift in strategy.
Strangely, no journalists seem yet to have had the cojones to call up various people who bought and amplified the story of MOOC-all-powerfulness for comment. Nothing from Clayton Christensen, or Clay Shirky, or Tom Friedman, or Don Tapscott, or any of the other techno-fetishist windbags who tried to make us all believe that the VC-funded MOOCs were an unstoppable wave of the future. This means that the techno-fetishists don’t get held to account (again), and we’ll soon all be chasing some other industry-disrupting deus ex machina.