I can’t read much of the recent piece of Thrun hagiography without wanting to do bodily harm to myself, so this following analysis might miss some of the subtlety of the article. I’ve tried to push myself to read it fully, and I really just can’t. From the photo up top of Thrun in what looks to be a 1973 Swedish cycling film, to the URL (“uphill climb”, get it?), to the vast research incompetence of the unbelievably compromised reporter who wrote it, every paragraph reminds us that Fast Company and other such publications exist as a sort of Pravda for the Valley set. With apologies, of course, to Pravda.
But if I read the article right, Sebastian Thrun, a man who slaved a full hour over a lesson he had to correct in between displays of physical prowess, is done with the traditional higher education market.
But 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.”
What is the answer? Move to a market segment where innovator-preneurs are free to innovator-preneuriate. Here’s one of the new classes, taught by educator-preneur Chris Wilson:
If Wilson seems slightly unprofessional as an educator, that’s because his only formal teaching credential is as an assistant scuba-diving instructor. Wilson works at Google as a developer advocate in the company’s Chrome division. His class was conceived, and paid for, by Google as a way to attract developers to its platforms. Over the past year, Udacity has recruited a dozen or so companies, including Autodesk, Intuit, Cloudera, Nvidia, 23andMe, and Salesforce.com, which had sent a couple of reps to discuss a forthcoming course on how to best use its application programming interface, or API. The companies pay to produce the classes and pledge to accept the certificates awarded by Udacity for purposes of employment.
There’ll likely be lots of analysis on this article and change in direction. He’s my little contribution. Thrun can’t build a bucket that doesn’t leak, so he’s going to sell sieves. I discussed this a bit a year ago in Why We Shouldn’t Talk MOOCs as Meritocracies (graph at top seems broken, sorry):
It’s that central point that I want to deal with though – that as a society we need only be interested in equality of opportunity, and that wide disparities of results on display are in fact OK, because they represent the system working its sorting magic. The people that have merit, who put in the work are succeeding. The people that don’t are not.
I hear this tossed around as an answer to MOOC failure rate, and it scares me a bit. It has taken decades for us to get to a point in higher education and K-12 where we are held accountable for social outcomes. And while there are flaws in the way those outcomes are measured, I know my own institution has actually undergone a sea change since I attended. We still struggle, occasionally, with faculty who think their job is to thin the class on its way up, but on the whole most faculty are committed to increasing the student success rate…similarly, my child’s grade school has moved heaven and earth to successfully teach skills to children that would have been abandoned years ago.
Udacity dithered for a bit on whether it would be accountable for student outcomes. Failures at San Jose State put an end to that. The move now is to return to the original idea: high failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs, because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers. Thrun is moving to an area where he is unaccountable, because accountability is hard.
It’s tempting to say good riddance, but I would add just one more thing. Despite giving up on equality of outcomes, Thrun still believes he is in the education business. Fast Company still believes he’s in education. So do a lot of policy makers.
And it’s quite possible to go to a model of education that sees its primary goal as thinning the herd. Such systems have existed in many places throughout history. There is no reason that this version of education can’t come back, and every day we allow Thrun to pretend he is not running from accountability is a day we move closer to such a model. That future involves an “uphill climb” for the people who need our help the most, and I’m hoping we can avoid it.