ST. LOUIS — Sebastian Thrun, godfather of the massive open online course, has quietly spread a plastic tarp on the floor, nudged his most famous educational invention into the center, and is about to pull the trigger. 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.”
This is quite a “pivot” from the Sebastian Thrun, who less than two years ago crowed to Wired that the unstemmable tide of free online education would leave a mere 10 purveyors of higher learning in its wake, one of which would be Udacity. However, on the heels of the embarrassing failure of a loudly hyped partnership with San Jose State University, the “lousiness” of the product seems to have become apparent. The failures of massive online education come as no shock to those of us who actually educate students by being in the same room with them — and, accordingly, Chafkin’s unabashed display of sycophantic longing has blazed up the academic Internet.
But what is the big deal about Thrun’s pivot, and why are academics and higher-ed writers alternately wary and gleeful about it? On the surface, Thrun appears duly chagrinned that his brainchild has failed the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to learn for free. And on the surface, the new direction of Udacity, which is to leave the university environment and focus on corporate training courses, seems appropriate: Sure, go “disrupt” a bunch of corporations, they love that kind of thing.
What’s got the academic Internet’s frayed mom jeans in a bunch, however, is that Thrun’s alleged mea culpa is actually a you-a culpa. 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 poor.