The Future of MOOCs

I recently heard a great talk about the future of education by Sebastian Thrun, one of the founders of online course provider Udacity.  Thrun is a Stanford professor who made headlines when 160,000 students from 195 countries signed up for his MOOC on artificial intelligence.  Whether correct or not – and it’s mostly too early to know – Thrun offers compelling views, many based on his experience teaching online courses.  You can listen here to the entire one-hour talk, which he delivered to the Commonwealth Club of California, America’s oldest and largest public affairs forum.

Although “only” 23,000 students of the 160,000 students who registered actually completed his artificial intelligence course, Thrun points out that this number is more than the total number of all Stanford students.  Nevertheless, Thrun concedes that the typical 3% retention rate for MOOCs is a problem.  More interesting is that the top 413 students in his online course achieved a higher grade than any of the 200 Stanford students who completed it.

Thrun is excited by online courses as a way to change education’s delivery model — having a learned person talk to other people synchronously.  That model, which hasn’t changed in a thousand years, might have made sense before recording technology, but it isn’t effective in an age of rapid changes in knowledge.  Nor does it address the differences in the way that individuals learn.  The traditional education model forces everyone to learn together at the same speed.  While smaller classes, especially those that group similar students, may work better, they are inherently uneconomical. The strength of online education is that students can work at their own pace, review instructional materials as many times as they need, and be assessed at any time rather than on the same day.  Thrun points out that this is the model of videogames, which allow people to progress at their own speed, get constant feedback and assessment, and get rewarded in points, recognition, and satisfaction when they get the right answer or master an element of the game.  Similarly, the goal of education, Thrun says, should be mastery, not timing.

The biggest revolution in learning, says Thrun, is not MOOCs, but Google and Wikipedia because they have turned us into on-demand learners.  This form of learning is profoundly different from conventional education, which imposes highly-curated content and an exact path for how students learn.

The quality of students graduating from America’s top colleges and universities is unmatched in the world, but Thrun says, these elite institutions graduate the best students because they admit the best students.  Unlike manufacturing, our educational system does not assess the value of finished products versus the value of the raw materials.  Furthermore, he says, these institutions are extremely exclusive and expensive.  Online education, he argues, can increase access to knowledge beyond the few high-achieving students fortunate enough to be able to attend elite institutions.  He also argues that online courses will create a more transparent system in which to judge the quality of individual professors.

Thrun is especially bullish on the potential positive impact of online education on  community colleges.  In California, which has the largest community college system, nearly half a million students are wait-listed because the state lacks funds for classroom space.  Thrun believes that online education could help address that problem as well as the problem that 60% of incoming state university students fail the entrance exams and must go into remedial classes.  Furthermore, 40,000 college students in the California state system fail and must retake classes each year at enormous financial cost to themselves and the educational system.  With that in mind, Udacity is piloting a college readiness program in three subjects for high school students.  The price of the courses is just 10% of a comparable remedial course in the California university system.  Thrun points out, however, that Udacity’s solution for these students is more than just online classes; it also includes intensive mentoring.

Thrun acknowledges that online education must still resolve issues, including those related to credit and cheating, although he feels that these aren’t as difficult as those involving the acceptance of online education by students and society at large.  America, which was built on trust in the individual, Thrun argues, must apply those values to education and trust the individual to excel. The result, he predicts, will be that many students left behind by the rigidity of traditional education will become engaged learners in the new online environment.

About Lee Greenhouse

Longtime strategy consultant focused on the business of information content, applications, and services.
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