Thrun: MOOCs never meant to replace college

Sebastian Thrun, who declared some of his own company’s massive open online courses (MOOCs) as “lousy” products, is continuing to distance the experimental online classes from the traditional courses many thought they were intended to replace.

Sebastian Thrun is CEO and cofounder of the free online platform Udacity.
Sebastian Thrun is CEO and cofounder of the free online platform Udacity.

“Part of the problem of the public dialogue is that some people have very quickly moved forward to tout what we do as a kind of replacement for college,” said Thrun, CEO of Udacity, in a recent podcast interview. “Which has unnecessarily polarized the field.”

Thrun, who is also the founder of Google’s secretive lab Google X, has become a polarizing figure himself in the two years since Udacity launched. In a 2012 interview with Wired, he estimated that, in 50 years, only 10 higher education institutions would remain.

Udacity, he said, could be one of them.

“I think [MOOCs are] the beginning of higher education,” Thrun told CNN that same year. “It’s the beginning of higher education for everybody.”

But in recent months, among fervent backlash from traditional college professors and rocky experiments with accreditation, Thrun has walked back some of those claims.

In a November 2013 Fast Company profile, Thrun admitted that many of the students MOOCs were meant to reach – low income people with little access to a college education — are not actually the ideal audience for online learning.

Many of those who actually complete MOOCs, it turns out, have already earned at least a bachelor’s degree.

Udacity has seen most of its success with “young professionals age 24 to 34, more than other segments,” Thrun said last week, in an interview with Gigagom. Moving forward, this seems to be an audience the company will primarily court.

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