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Column: Online courses go prematurely obsolete

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 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.

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 chagrined 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 damn poor.

"These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives," he told the magazine Fast Company in an interview. "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," noted Jonathan Rees, professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo. "However, the masses at San Jose State don't appear to be ready for the commodified, impersonal higher education that MOOCs offer."

Successful education needs personal interaction and accountability, period. This is, in fact, the same reason students feel annoyed, alienated and anonymous in large lecture halls and thus justified in sexting and playing World of Warcraft during class — and why the answer is not the MOOC, but the tiny, for-credit, in-person seminar that has neither a sexy acronym nor a potential for huge corporate partnerships.

Granted, Thrun's hasty retreat from a full university takeover is delightful for advocates of actual education, and his new vocational focus seems like a great idea for its participants at first glance. But here's the other problem, which is perhaps even more pernicious: The single thing MOOCs unequivocally do better than traditional educational methods is play to the distinct advantages of the advantaged. Congratulations?

If the only university students who can benefit from a MOOC are those who can already afford an elite education, and if the only corporate trainees who succeed are those already primed for success, then what is the point? Thrun's admission seems to have "pivoted" the MOOC to premature obsolescence.

Perhaps the professoriate's latest source of terror — our wholesale replacement by actors strutting and fretting upon a new kind of stage — will never come about. As Rees puts it, Thrun has done us "a huge favor by demonstrating the value of what most of us do every day," proving "beyond a shadow of a doubt that real higher education can't be automated."

This takeaway has the potential to be monumental for the future of higher education: MOOCs reify, rather than break down, privilege barriers and as such they are not the disruptive solution their hagiographers insisted they were. The problems MOOCs were supposed to solve still plague the current university, of course. But skyrocketing tuition and a faculty labor crisis will need a different kind of savior — one who doesn't show up in a driverless car.

Rebecca Schuman is an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

© 2013 Slate

Column: Online courses go prematurely obsolete 11/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 1:47pm]
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