Thrun—former Stanford superprofessor, Silicon Valley demigod, and now CEO of online-course purveyor Udacity—just admitted to Fast Company’s openly smitten Max Chafkin that his company’s courses are often a “lousy product.”
For Udacity’s catastrophic failure to teach remedial mathematics at San Jose State University, Thrun blames neither the corporatization of the university nor the MOOC’s use of unqualified “student mentors” in assessment. Instead, he blames the students themselves for being so damn poor.
The way Fast Company has it, Thrun chucks those San Jose State students under the self-driving Google car faster than he chugs up a hill on his custom-made road bike, leaving a panting Max Chafkin in the dust to ponder the following Thrunism: “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. … It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”
The problem, of course, is that those students represent the precise group MOOCs are meant to serve. “MOOCs were supposed to be the device that would bring higher education to the masses,” Jonathan Rees noted. “However, the masses at San Jose State don’t appear to be ready for the commodified, impersonal higher education that MOOCs offer.”
“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial,” Professor Sebastian Thrun tells me when I visit his company, Udacity, in its Mountain View, California, headquarters this past October. “But the data was at odds with this idea.”
As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.
“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.” Turns out he doesn’t even like the term MOOC.