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Udacity CEO Says MOOC 'Magic Formula' Emerging

Sebastian Thrun dishes on Udacity's Silicon Valley style and how to make massive open online courses work for more than "the most motivated 1%."
The summer-term program was different, based on open enrollment of any students who wanted to sign up, and Udacity added staff to drive success rates up. "What we've learned is the computer program alone, a MOOC alone is not likely to be a good educational medium for large numbers of people, except for the truly highly self-motivated. To be successful, we need people on the ground to do things, to provide educational services."

Similarly, when the Georgia Tech program launches, students will not be in a traditional classroom but neither will they be alone with just the computer to teach them. Georgia Tech will provide the faculty and the content and take 60% of the tuition money, while Udacity will provide "course assistants" in addition to the computer platform for the other 40%. The money will fund services for the students, including a help line, mentoring, student project grading, and exam proctoring, Thrun said.

Next: Adaptive Learning

For a company created by a former Googler and expert on artificial intelligence, Udacity has done little to try to apply big-data-driven adaptive learning techniques to its courses, which are organized around short videos and multiple choice quizzes. The idea that educational software can track student performance and adapt instruction to an individual's strengths and weaknesses is not new, but large-scale online education opens up new possibilities to analyze vast quantities of clickstream and assessment data when making those judgments.

"One of the holy grails we have not yet reached is, can each person find an individual path through the course -- we really want to get there," Thrun said. "We have a lot of data that shows forcing everybody down the same path is not a good idea." So far, he sees the leaders in applying that technology are companies like Knewton, which provides an analytic cloud service that is being incorporated into adaptive software from some of the major educational textbook providers, and Khan Academy, "where your path through a maze of math lessons becomes personalized."

The most adaptive resource Udacity has brought to bear are the tutors working with SJSU students, who will make up extra exercises on the spot to help students understand something they are struggling with. "With an optimal adaptive system, we might not have to do as much of it," Thrun said.

The educational technology industry focus on big data concerns some educators, who worry the technologists are trying to boil all of education down to a simplistic level, where recommendations to students can be issued as easily as book recommendations on or movie recommendations on Netflix.

Thrun's first reaction to this question was to object that those people have no idea how hard it is to create a good recommendation engine. As for whether similar techniques can be applied to education, he professes to reserve judgment. "I believe it's worth trying to solve this problem. When I look at the transcripts of our tutoring sessions, when someone gets stuck, I don't get the impression it always takes an Einstein to answer these questions. I get the impression there's specific ways students get stuck, specific gaps that they have. And there are also patterns in how you practice things, that are documented in the literature -- how you repeat practice things to have a sustained learning effect. I see a lot of hope that it is computer-izable. I think we can make great progress, especially compared to where we are today at Udacity where we don't have much of this technology."

Politics And University Politics

One reason Udacity has had to contend with controversy is that online education and educational technology in general have a political and emotional dimension. When the California Faculty Association helped publicize Udacity's setbacks at SJSU, it was reacting in part to the fears of its members that their job security was being undermined -- a fear intensified by the enthusiasm of some politicians for MOOCs as a replacement for traditional higher education.

Thrun recently told MIT Technology Review that in five years Udacity will be "just like a university, but we'll be a university for the 21st century."

Reminded of that, he insists he wasn't saying online education will replace the university as we know it, only that the next-generation university "will be much more pervasive, much more available throughout your life." With skills going stale much quicker due to the pace of technological change, people will need ongoing resources like Udacity, he said.

Thrun is conscious that journalists tend to see the transformation of higher education through the lens of their own industry, where the migration of news content from print to online diluted the power of newspapers and magazines, which found themselves competing for ad dollars with every blogger. It may be an easy comparison, but the differences are important, Thrun said.

When newspapers went online, there was no shortage of news content in the market, and the new distribution model did not lead to an increase in the public's appetite for that content -- the audience and the ad dollars just got spread thinner. He offers a different analogy: "After the movie industry started about 100 years ago, the amount of time people spent consuming fictitious play went up by some estimates by a factor of 28." Access to higher education is relatively "locked up," and online education provides greater access to what has been a scarce, expensive resource, he said.

"I think it's completely conceivable that, in the future, education could be 20 times bigger than it is today -- in which case, it's going to be great for the industry, not bad," Thrun said.