Giving Up on MOOCs?


Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity which is one of the stars of private sector MOOC providers, has decided after 2+ years that the Massive Open Online Course is not going to disrupt higher education.

He hasn't really given up on the MOOC as much as he has given up on some of that open audience for them. A good part of his disillusionment seems to have come with his efforts to offer courses at San Jose State.

He had seen high enrollments (160,000) but low completion rates when he offered a MOOC at Stanford. But at San Jose State Udacity was offering the best product he had available and the incentive of credits and students were still not completing courses successfully.

The faculty at SJSU hadn't supported the appearance of the courses on campus and now their doubts seem more justified.

Part of the attention to Thrun's new take on the mission of the MOOC is that he seems to be saying that the MOOC learning experience is just not suited to the diverse students at varying levels of readiness that a college like SJSU. 

Of course, we need to keep in mind that it didn't seem as bad when the completion rate was low for those early courses because it didn't really matter (grade and credit-wise) if they didn't finish the course or master all the parts of it. At San Jose State, it mattered.

In a long article on, we learn that even with 1.6 million Udacity students so far, Thrun was obsessed with that discouraging completion rate. I have written before that I feel that we need to rethink how we define completion in the MOOC environment. My own experiences both in taking MOOCs as a student and in teaching them is that some learners are clearly there to gain knowledge about some of the course material, but without any intention to complete all of the course. And that is a valid reason to take a MOOC, as long as you're concerned about grades or credits. And we weren't as concerned with those things in the early - and much more Open - massive courses.

Has Thrun, the “godfather of free online education” given up on the MOOC? Not really. He says that those racially, economically diverse students at SJSU, “were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives…[for them] this medium is not a good fit.” He is giving up on students.

Okay, maybe that's not totally fair. He does admit that some of the Udacity courses are a "lousy product."  But others are jumping on Thrun's "throwing in the towel" comment as the downward turning point for MOOCs. Jonathan Freedman, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has an article that claims that MOOCs are becoming a “middlebrow” culture that references the Thrun interview comments. Freedman also has criticism for comments Bill gates has made about MOOC use supplanting traditional college coursework, but I am not convinced.

Thrun  ran into Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and Gates told him that “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?"

That had to hurt. Maybe those words have stayed with him. Gates suggested that he redirect his focus on remedial math education. The Gates Foundation even provided funding for Udacity to offer its courses for free to inner-city high school kids. The success rate in those courses was not impressive, but it was considered a learning process for Udacity too.

What's the future for Udacity? Thrun says up next is “the biggest shift in the history of the company.” The goal is no longer to displace traditional higher education by delivering free elite-level online courses to millions of students worldwide. Now, it will be to move towards smaller, credit-bearing, priced courses that focus on technical and vocational skills.

I have thought since the beginning of the MOOC wave lifting that they would have a bigger impact with professional development and with technical fields. Our traditional classrooms and our traditional online courses will probably still be better for most academic disciplines. And those courses and school will still be the ones that grant degrees.

I agree with what Thrun is saying. Luckily for me, I don't have a company and venture capitalists relying on me to turn a profit.

When community college students stop out or drop out

Community college students face long odds of eventually earning a bachelor’s degree. And those odds get worse if they leave college more than once along the way.

That is the central finding of a new study that tracked the progress of 38,000 community college students in Texas. Toby J. Park, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Florida State University, conducted the research. His working paper was presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education in St. Louis.

...the study found that 76 percent of those degree completers took only one break from college. After stopping out after a second time, the percentage of returning students completing a bachelor’s degree decreases substantially.

“If you leave twice,” Park said, “you’re not going to come back.”
Read more:

In 4 Years Your Phone Will Be Smarter Than You (and the rise of cognizant computing)

JetsonsYour smartphone will be smarter than you by the year 2017. That is from an analysis from market research firm Gartner. It won't have much to do with hardware. It will come from the data and computational ability in the cloud. Phones will appear smarter than you - if you equate smarts with being able to recall information and make inferences. It was a part of a discussion of smart devices at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2013, November 10-14 in Barcelona.

What made mobile phones smartphones was new tech and and apps, Cameras, enabling locations and sensors, and tying them into apps and social interactions via apps has been the biggest trend the past 5 years. The easier things are already in place - scheduling, sending out reminders, letting you know what friends are doing or where they are, alerting you to things in your vicinity.

A newer trend is having phones that predict your next action based on personal data already gathered. This is called cognizant computing and many people see it as the next step in personal cloud computing.

Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner, says “If there is heavy traffic, it will wake you up early for a meeting with your boss, or simply send an apology if it is a meeting with your colleague. The smartphone will gather contextual information from its calendar, its sensors, the user’s location and personal data.”

Of course, allowing your phone to do these things is part of the equation. And not everyone is okay with granting permissions to apps, opening up their data and feeling confident in allowing apps and services to take control of aspects of their lives.

This idea of cognizant computing is said to occur in 4 phases. Those phases (according to Gartner) are sync me, see me, know me and be me.

4 phases

Sync me is familiar to users and probably appreciated: store copies of digital assets and sync them across devices. So, my iPhone knows what my iPad knows and my cloud documents are on all my devices, including several laptops.

See me is here in its early stages and means devices can track history and context. The phone knows where I am now and where I have been.

Using the data from those two phases (which many of us have granted permissions for), phones can move to phases 3 and 4. That's when things get a bit scary for some people. When my phone "knows me" it act act proactively. Do I want to purchase something now based on my earlier spending habits?

And, taking it a step further, how much do I want my device to "Be Me" and act on my behalf? It will pay my bills. It will send selected friends and relatives birthday greeting and pick out a gift. (After all, I have tied my wife's purchases to my account and it knows where she likes to shop and what she likes to buy.)

Scary? Or are you happy to let that little package of power make your life "easier"?

I still haven't gotten my jetpack or flying car, but I might get some cousin of The Jetsons' Rosie that can slip into my pocket - and into my life - quite easily.


Play With Your Music


Peer to Peer University (P2PU) is a nonprofit online open learning community which allows users to organize and participate in courses and study groups to learn about specific topics. I have been working in P2PU since 2009 when it first offered courses - and before anyone was really using the term MOOC for an open, online course that allowed large numbers of people to participate for free.

P2PU is offering a new music massive open online course (MOOC) that was developed along with the MIT Media Lab and NYU's Steinhardt Department of Music & Performing Arts. It is called  “Play With Your Music” (#PWYM) and it is a free, 6-week online course where participants will explore, mix and remix songs, using the newest tools on the web.

Learners get to work with audio production, while working with music they already know and love. Anyone with an interest in making music is welcome, and all you need is a computer and a browser. You'll learn about mixing tracks from the folks at NYU's Steinhardt School of Music and other luminaries in the field and some of the newest tools on the web.

The next course session starts January 15.

Khan Academy Translating Itself Into The One World Schoolhouse

khan logo

If you know Khan Academy as a website that offers free online video lectures about a variety of subjects, you only know the Khan Academy of a few years ago. It started as a one-man (Salman Khan) operation on a no-budget. Khan, a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School, started it as the Academy in 2006 with a stated mission is to provide "a free world-class education for anyone anywhere."

The last numbers I saw had the website's micro lectures count at about 700 with topics well beyond his original math tutorials. The topics now include history, healthcare, medicine, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, economics, cosmology, organic chemistry, American civics, art history, macroeconomics, microeconomics, and computer science.

Khan Academy has grown through funding from places like The Gates Foundation. I now hear Khan Academy described as a MOOC and that seems somewhat true, bit I think it is closer to the idea of education that Salman Khan envisions and describes in his book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined.

logo deutsch

They have delivered over 300 million "lessons" to the world, but most are in English and so is the website. But, like Wikipedia did in its early days, the Academy is crowdsourcing the translation of the site and lessons to its users and the world.

Recently, I saw that they were looking for more German translators who have already made progress toward building a Deutsch Khan Academy  (now an Alpha Site). They have 17% of high priority content and 64% of high priority platform translated. November is their month for trnslating Khan Academy into Deutsch. Can you contribute to the Academy’s German site? Even translating a few sentences helps.

And there are many other languages being translated or on the list for the near future - see