The leading light of the MOOC movement, which seeks "creative disruption" of the hidebound higher education "industry," has come to a moment of doubt as to the Liberating Potential of his innovations.
"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.
Of especial note are the disastrous results of Udacity's partnership with the State of California to offer online credit-bearing courses for remedial and basic college math courses:
Among those pupils who took remedial math during the pilot program, just 25% passed. And when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging. A student taking college algebra in person was 52% more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class, making the $150 price tag--roughly one-third the normal in-state tuition--seem like something less than a bargain.
As the article makes clear, none of this means that the movement to "disrupt" higher education via cheap online content has gone away. There's just too much money involved.
It does however display the frightening and ultimately misplaced megalomania underlying the evangelical technocrats who think there's a killer app that could Educate the World and Confound the Backwards-Looking Naysayers, and almost incidentally, make them insanely rich.