The Sieve Manufacture Continues at Udacity

From Udacity last week, regarding the phasing out of free certificates:

“We owe it to you, our hard working students, that we do whatever we can to ensure your certificate is as valuable as possible.”

and

We have now heard from many students and employers alike that they would like to see more rigor in certifying actual accomplishments.

Jonathan Rees has more on this odd phrasing about what is essentially a decision to charge students for what used to be a free education:

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this here, but I think this announcement raises profound questions about what education actually is, or perhaps simply what it’s supposed to accomplish. Is higher education a good thing because of the skills it represents or is it a good thing because you have it and others don’t?

To which I’d answer, no, you’re not reading too much into it. As I said back in November about Thrun’s sudden pivot:

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…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.

If thinning pools through creating high-failure courses is good, then thinning pools through creating high-failure courses and costly identity verification is even better. It’s MOOCs as Meritocracies, and it’s just as dumb (and culturally illiterate) an idea as it was in 2012, when the Chronicle was drooling over it.

Meritocracy is not a system, but rather a myth power tells itself. It’s openness as a privilege multiplier. It’s the antithesis of open education, which must measure its success in outputs, not inputs. You can’t claim you’ve granted people access to the top shelf of goods if you don’t provide them a stepladder.

I would disagree with one small point in Jonathan’s post, however. He indicts all MOOCs for this view. There are, I think, significant differences in the approach of both edX and Coursera to these issues. Most notably, edX has Justin Reich on board, and Justin Reich’s research is in exactly this area — how do we make sure that openness closes gaps rather than widen them. But I’ve also seen Coursera publicly grapple with this question in a way Udacity has walked away from. It’s clear to me that Coursera at the very least is *committed* to gap-closing as a principle, even if they have not yet acheived that in practice.

And that’s a difference worth noting and encouraging. There will be fundamental changes coming to Coursera’s model soon, and the question is which way will they lean. Let’s hope it’s not towards the sieve market Udacity continues to pioneer.

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14 thoughts on “The Sieve Manufacture Continues at Udacity

  1. …and, about 30 minutes after I posted, I got the following email from “Amanda Sparr, Coach @Udacity”:

    Dear Michael,

    Nice work on earning a certificate for the Intro to Computer Science courseware. It speaks volumes for what you learned while completing this rigorous course. Congrats again!

    Today we upgraded this course . This brings you new opportunities, for little extra work:
    You can now practice and show off your skills, with a new hands-on project where you’ll build a social network.

    You can also earn a Verified Certificate, since this course now has a subscription option.
    Udacious Coaches like me work with you and award these Verified Certificates. We review your project code, share feedback and tips, and conduct a final video interview where we verify your identity. With these steps, employers see our Verified Certificates as an even stronger endorsement of your skills.

    To get you started here’s a 20% discount*: Udacity.com/IntroCS?coupon=UMVLPYBA22T1JK6.

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