The failure of Udacity: lessons on MOOC quality

The promise was simple, but the idea couldn’t have been bigger.

Udacity founder called the company’s courses a ‘lousy product.’

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) would make courses from Harvard and MIT available free to anyone with an internet connection.

The world’s poor would finally have access to the same education as American ivy league students, while traditional fee paying higher education would go the way of relics like CDs and sailing ships.

Massive open online education provider Udacity was one of those promising such change. In the past, Udacity’s founder Sebastian Thrun claimed MOOCs would spell the end of the conventional higher education model and transform access to knowledge.

Despite the big promises, retention rates in Udacity courses have been abysmal and those that did make it through were already those with bachelor degrees. Now Udacity has decided to charge money for their certified courses, leaving behind their claims of free quality higher education for all.

As leading technology-enhanced learning expert George Siemens described it: “[Thrun] promised us a bright future of open learning. He delivered to us something along the lines of a 1990s corporate e-learning program.”

Even Thrun himself has now admitted that Udacity is “a lousy product.”

So where did it all go wrong for Thrun and Udacity? And why, when it comes to online education, did we ignore education experts, and listen to Silicon Valley instead?

A cheaper, faster education

Ultimately, the outcome of higher learning cannot be made cheaper and faster any more than you can expect to improve physical fitness if you cut corners at the gym.

While there are myriad products and services claiming a fast, cheap route to fitness, nothing is as effective as time and/or intensity pumping iron or going on the treadmill.

Similarly, if students don’t put in the right kind of work, with the right guidance and expend sufficient cognitive effort, they will not see results.