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Praise, Criticism, Questions After Udacity 'Pivot'

Sebastian Thrun, founder of the massive open online course provider Udacity, is no stranger to controversy. The Stanford University research professor and Google fellow has previously said higher education in 50 years will be provided by no more than 10 institutions worldwide, and Udacity could be one of them. Thrun dropped another bombshell last week in a profile published in Fast Company, which claimed the “godfather of free online education” had changed course. “The man who started this revolution no longer believes the hype,” the article read. Instead of teaching hundreds of thousands of students in one session, Udacity’s future could look something like the company’s partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology and AT&T to create a low-cost master’s degree.

In reality, Thrun’s shift is more nuanced. Call it a refinement -- not a loss of faith.

“I am much more upbeat than the article suggests,” Thrun said in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Over the summer, we had students pay for services wrapped around our open classes, and the results were about [20 times] better when compared to students just taking open MOOCs. We have now built the necessary infrastructure to bring this model to more students, while keeping all materials open and free of charge as in the past.”

Some critics of Thrun’s vision interpreted the article as a bit of poetic justice:

“After two years of hype, breathless proclamations about how Udacity will transform higher education, Silicon Valley blindness to existing learning research, and numerous articles/interviews featuring Sebastian Thrun, Udacity has failed,” wrote George Siemens, associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. “This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs. Thrun tied his fate too early to VC funding. As a result, Udacity is now driven by revenue pursuits, not innovation.”

Beyond schadenfreude, many responses cautioned against taking the profile as a sign that Thrun was abandoning higher education:

“It’s tempting to say good riddance,” wrote Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver.

“Thrun can’t build a bucket that doesn’t leak, so he’s going to sell sieves,” Caulfield wrote. “Udacity dithered for a bit on whether it would be accountable for student outcomes. Failures at San Jose State put an end to that. The move now is to return to the original idea: high failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs, because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers. Thrun is moving to an area where he is unaccountable, because accountability is hard.”

Others said the profile marked a premature obituary for MOOCs, which exploded onto the higher education stage as recently as in 2012:

“After a long period of unbridled optimism and world-changing claims about the transformative potential of MOOCs, journalists are now proclaiming that MOOCs are dead, or at the very least broken,” wrote Shriya Nevatia, an undergraduate at Tufts University. “This is extremely dangerous. Instead of companies taking their ambitious proclamations and working hard to make them true, they say that MOOCs have failed, before they’ve even had a chance.”

Among MOOC skeptics, Audrey Watters, an education writer (and blogger for Inside Higher Ed), cautioned against thinking the format is dead:

“The Fast Company article serves as the latest round in MOOC hagiography: Thrun, the patron saint of higher education disruption,” Watters wrote. “And whether you see today’s Fast Company article as indication of a ‘pivot’ or not, I think it’s a mistake to cheer this moment as Udacity’s admission of failure and as an indication that it intends to move away from university disruption.... So yeah, perhaps it’s easy for many in higher education to shrug and sigh with relief that Thrun has decided to set his sights elsewhere. But if we care about learning -- if we care about learners -- I think we need to maintain our fierce critiques about MOOCs.”

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California needs a new higher education master plan to replace the "obsolete" guiding principles state leaders embraced more than 50 years ago, and the new approach should embrace online education so the state is once again an innovator rather than the "reluctant follower" it has become, argues a new report from an influential state agency. The report from the Little Hoover Commission, "A New Plan for a New Economy: Reimagining Higher Education," paints a critical picture of the current state of higher education in California, with a need to produce many more citizens with college credentials at a time when the state has "finite resources for higher education."

Among its many recommendations, the panel urges that lawmakers provide "incentives for developing online courses for high-demand introductory courses, bottleneck prerequisite courses and remedial courses that demonstrate effective learning. To qualify, the course must be able to be awarded course and unit credit, at a minimum, at all California community colleges, or all California state universities, or all campuses of the University of California. Better yet would be courses that would be awarded credit at any campuses of all three segments. Courses could be designed by private or nonprofit entities according to college and university criteria."

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