Udacity CEO Says MOOC 'Magic Formula' Emerging - InformationWeek

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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%."

While Udacity is often mentioned in the same breath as Coursera, a MOOC startup, and edX, a nonprofit created by MIT and Harvard, Udacity's approach is significantly different. Rather than partnering with universities to distribute courses they produce, Udacity produces all its own courses and in most cases hires the instructors itself.

"We also have the smallest number of courses," Thrun pointed out, "more than an order of magnitude smaller than Coursera." Coursera has partnered with 83 higher education institutions and offers more than 400 courses.

SJSU and Georgia Tech are Udacity's only two university partners so far. Udacity worked with SJSU faculty to create the courses for its program, which can also be taken on a non-credit basis by a Udacity user.

"The reason I'm staying kind of small is I want to solve the question of how to make education work and only scale up once I figure that out," Thrun said. "When we did the AI class, which was sort of the first large-scale MOOC, I think we did a fine job, but I don't think we did a great job. I felt if I now go out and ask a thousand professors to do an online class, it will look and feel very much like the AI class. It's very hard to innovate if at the same time you're trying to scale as platform."

Udacity typically has eight people involved in creating a class, supported by a larger team "developing procedures and strategies and a lot of data-driven improvements," Thrun said. "If we were hosting a few hundred classes, we couldn't do it. I really want to find the magic formula first before scale. I'm really proud that I think we've found the formula. We just need time to really make it work and get the numbers up to where we want them to be. We're not there yet -- I want to be very humble about that."

Thrun seems to be trying to inject a little humility into the way he talks about revolutionizing online education. "A medium where only self-motivated, Web-savvy people sign up, and the success rate is 10%, doesn't strike me quite yet as a solution to the problems of higher education," he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, when interviewed for a report on the underwhelming performance of MOOCs so far.

Thrun's magic formula is not a fully automated online class featuring prerecorded videos and Web-based assessments. In other words, it's not a MOOC at all. To get better results, he said, "We changed the equation and put people on the ground." By adding mentors and a help line, and making phone calls to remind students to do their work, Udacity found it could get more students to do the work, finish the course and pass. Longer term, he has some ideas about using adaptive learning software to eliminate some of this labor, but for now it takes manpower.

"When we look at the data, which we are still analyzing, we do find a whole bunch of people for whom online education doesn't work," Thrun said. "But we're now massively driving students through education with good outcomes -- where these are not the classic, highly self-motivated people."

Beyond The 1%

There is another side of Udacity's business where the MOOC model is working just fine, where it doesn't matter that only a small number of students complete a course. What matters is that those who are successful learn marketable skills, and Udacity has a chance to capitalize on that fact. In this case, its customers are employers seeking access to skills -- like Google underwriting courses on HTML5 and mobile Web development because it can't hire enough good people with those skills.

"I like them because they bring really contemporary technology skills that are very much career-related to pretty much everybody in the world, which is something that's never happened before," Thrun said. "It was really hard for someone in Africa or India to learn how to build a contemporary HTML5 website, and now they can do it."

There is no college credit associated with those classes, and they are not associated with any accredited institution of higher education, but no one cares, Thrun said. "The companies we work with, they don't ask, 'are these courses accredited?' They ask, 'are the people we graduate capable of doing certain things?'"

If students give permission, Udacity will introduce the top students to these potential employers. The fact that these students were determined enough to finish the course on their own initiative, when so many others dropped out, just adds to their cachet.

Yet Thrun said he wants to make a bigger and broader impact than that. When he started the company, he said, "the number one thing I wanted to understand, as a technologist, was can we build something that gives access to a good education to as many people as possible?"

By that measure, he has a long way to go.

One "decisive moment" came earlier this year when he ran into Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Founder and former CEO of Microsoft, Gates has made improving the quality of education one of the major missions of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"I love Bill. He's a smart guy, and also a skeptic, which is good," Thrun said. "And he told me, look, Sebastian, what you're doing is teaching to the 1% most motivated people on the planet. To sign up you have to be self-motivated. To stick with it you also have to be self-motivated. Those people, they can learn from anything. If you gave them a book, they would learn it equally well. So what exactly are you changing?' I really took that comment to heart. I started thinking, 'wow, if my target group is the ones who make it through a MOOC, I might find some truly extraordinary people, but I will not have done anything to change education.'"

It was Gates who suggested the focus on remedial math education, and the Gates Foundation provided the funding for Udacity to offer its courses for free to inner-city high school kids, Thrun said. The success rate may not have been impressive, "but we tried it," he said, and learned some things in the process.

Gov. Brown also "made a really convincing point that we should reach out to disadvantaged people, not just to the people who already had it all," Thrun said. "If you ask Sebastian the capitalist, was it wise to go into inner-city high schools with this? Probably not."

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David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
8/30/2013 | 6:08:33 PM
re: Udacity CEO Says MOOC 'Magic Formula' Emerging
Update: the encouraging #s Thrun alluded to are out: MOOC Math Students Beat On-Campus Pass Rate http://twb.io/1a2cpeI
User Rank: Author
8/20/2013 | 5:03:07 PM
re: Udacity CEO Says MOOC 'Magic Formula' Emerging
The word "disruption" gets thrown around a lot, but this is truly disruptive stuff -- $150 full-credit university courses and online master's degrees (at Georgia Tech, no less) for $6,600. Such programs are bound to put price pressure on universities nationwide, and it's about time.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
8/20/2013 | 4:57:03 PM
re: Udacity CEO Says MOOC 'Magic Formula' Emerging
One other angle that emerged from this conversation concerns open educational resources. See:

Udacity Hedges On Open Licensing For MOOCs http://twb.io/14grlS1
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