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Udacity: Creating A More Engaging MOOC

Udacity cofounder and online education pioneer David Evans sees powerful potential in platform's unique project-based approach.
In November 2011, Evans received an email from Thrun asking if he would be interested in creating an introductory computer science course for the company he was hatching. Evans had no inside connection -- Thrun apparently sent the same invitation to a large number of computer science instructors -- but he did have the interest. A few emails and a Skype chat later, Evans found himself flying to San Francisco to meet with Thrun and co-founders David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky. At that meeting they hit on the idea of developing a search engine as a framework for the course, and to prove it could be done, Evans wrote a first draft of the code at the airport while waiting for his flight home.

After arranging to take a sabbatical from his work for the University of Virginia, Evans went to work in the guest house at Thrun's home in Los Alto Hills, which served as Udacity's initial headquarters and studio. In addition to creating a couple of his own courses for Udacity, Evans recruited several other instructors to flesh out the computer science course lineup.

For Web development he recruited Steve Huffman, a former University of Virginia student who co-founded the social news site reddit.com and more recently the travel search site Hipmunk. Evans also pulled in University of Virginia professor Westley Weimer to teach a course in programming languages. In keeping with the concept of working a project into the course format, Huffman built his course around creating your own blog software, and Weimer had his students develop a Web browser.

"What is really important in this -- and [it's] hard to find in faculty -- is that they come to this with a fairly open mind about trying things in a different way," Evans said. Many experienced professors have been teaching the same material for so long that they can't imagine teaching it any other way. Asked to create an online course, he said, "their first instinct is to say, 'Sure, just put a camera in the back of the classroom.'" Because they know the material, they don't think they should have to prepare.

In reality, Evans explained, online courses need to be heavily scripted and require a lot of preparation. In a regular classroom, an instructor typically wants to take a more unscripted approach, leaving room for interaction with the students. "When you're lecturing in a studio with no audience," Evans pointed out, "that tends not to go so well."

Evans, who had never taught an online course prior to his experience with Udacity, said one advantage of the format is the potential to invest a lot more resources in one class than you could with a traditional university class. An example is the ability to incorporate more high-profile guest speakers than you could get to come to your classroom.

Online course producers are just at the earliest stages of exploring the possibilities, Evans said -- rather like the first experiments with movies, which were produced by recording performances of plays on a theater stage. "Udacity has moved a few steps beyond that," he said.

Also the author of an open Introduction to Computing textbook, freely downloadable under Creative Commons license, Evans doesn't see himself as part of a movement to reshape higher education. "I do think it's better to make things more accessible and available [particularly as an employee of a public university]," he said.

While he has no concrete plans to do more with Udacity, Evans does feel he left some unfinished business behind: development of a coherent curriculum. That was one of his original goals in going to work with the company that got lost in the rush to build a course catalog rapidly. "I'd like to see courses that build on each other to lead students through a carefully designed curriculum."

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.