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Sebastian Thrun Pivots Udacity Toward Vocational Education 86

Posted by timothy
from the marketplace-of-ideas dept.
lpress writes "Udacity CEO and MOOC super star Sebastian Thrun has decided to scale back his original ambition of providing a free college education for everyone and focus on (lifelong) vocational education. A pilot test of Udacity material in for-credit courses at San Jose State University was discouraging, so Udacity is developing an AT&T-sponsored masters degree at Georgia Tech and training material for developers. If employers like this emphasis, it might be a bigger threat to the academic status quo than offering traditional college courses."
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Sebastian Thrun Pivots Udacity Toward Vocational Education

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  • That headline made me think I had a stroke there for a moment. Again summary fail without context or that new fangled idea known as hyperlinks.

  • Most of their courses have always been vocational skills (mostly IT and startups related). This isn't so much a pivot as a business expansion attempt that failed.

  • by Dr. Spork (142693) on Friday November 29, 2013 @08:34PM (#45558555)
    I looked through the links now and I'm getting this subtext that Thun is sick of dealing with the bullshit that comes from trying to work within the framework of established universities and their entrenched faculties. The idea of moving into vocational education and forgetting the whole "get college credit" model really might be more dangerous to the educational establishment, and Thun really does seem to be hoping for their demise. (I'm guessing he sat through some rather ugly meetings with department heads and university administrators.) But I'm disappointed by this. If the way that university education dies is by vocational courses cutting off their air (=money) supply, something of great value will be lost, something that could have been transitioned without too much violence into a MOOC-style model. Because let's face it, vocational courses can help you in your job, but they don't exactly fill you with wonder and culture and insight, the way that well-crafted university courses can. Well, probably, "proper" college courses are bound to become MOOCs anyway, even if Thun won't be the one to do it. And if this is done right, the wonder, culture and insight that these courses can bestow will reach far more people than they reach now. But I don't think that there is any guarantee that this will be done right. It can also turn out canned, contrived, shallow, proprietary and generic. Insofar as I thought that Thun was trying to do it right, I consider this a victory for the bastards.
    • by qbzzt (11136)

      EDx [slashdot.org] makes good courses, IMAO. Also non-accredited. But maybe accreditation is what needs to go. We have a lot of second and third tier universities who can be superseded by MOOCs with no loss of functionality for our culture.

      • by qbzzt (11136)

        I meant the link to go to here [edx.org]. Sorry.

      • We have a lot of second and third tier universities who can be superseded by MOOCs with no loss of functionality for our culture.

        It's ironic that you limit it to "second and third tier universities" when edX was founded and is largely run by MIT and Harvard.

        What do undergrad courses at the most prestigious universities offer that undergrad courses at the less prestigious universities don't? The material may be covered in greater depth, and the tests harder, but I don't see what that has to do with MOOC vs. in-person teaching. Just have different levels of MOOC. An additional advantage is that people who couldn't get into the most pre

        • by qbzzt (11136) on Friday November 29, 2013 @11:32PM (#45559167)

          I think (I was never in one) that the first tier universities allow even undergrads to interact with the world experts and do research under their direction (see http://web.mit.edu/urop/ [mit.edu]). This is a non-scalable function, which MOOCs can't do.

          This is the reason MITx is such a good idea for MIT - it doesn't eat into their customer base, but that of lesser universities.

          • Why should such research opportunities for undergrads be limited to, for example, MIT students?

            It brings to mind an anecdote (though a telling one). A friend of mine is a HS science teacher. They had a summer internship at SUNY-Stonybrook for HS students, and one of his better students attended it one summer. While there she discovered a wind pattern around Hawaii that no one else had noticed. The prof who was supervising these interns gave a talk at a meteorology conference in San Diego, where the new wind

            • by qbzzt (11136)

              The scaling issue is the shortage of competent researchers who can supervise untrained researchers in a useful manner. To do that you need to be good at research and good at mentoring.

    • well they are lot's of fluffy college degrees and lot's of people / skills that should not be in college but can do good in a vocational / community college setting.

    • by pikine (771084)

      If you just want wonder and culture and insight, Discovery Channel and National Geographic can easily outdo accredited universities while at the same time be more effective at conveying knowledge. I wish more broadcast media outlet would fulfill their educational responsibility. In the ideal sense, good news reporting can also fill you in a lot of context that leads to the current event. Only a few news outlets that I know of practice that kind of perspective news reporting, which is sad because I wish ther

      • by Trepidity (597)

        If you find more wonder in the Discovery Channel than a good theoretical CS or physics class, you might have a superficial idea of wonder. :)

        • by pikine (771084)

          This is how the Oxford Dictionary defines wonder: "a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable." Pink Floyd can fulfill this definition of wonder.

          But I think ultimately, I disagree with your idea how the notion of wonder relates to theoretical CS or physics. In a pure mathematical sense, a theoretical study is the exploration of what logical consequences can be shown to follow from a set of well defined axioms. Theoretical CS uses a g

      • by sumdumass (711423)

        I have found that most people I know find their desire to learn or an interest in studying until well after they were supposed to. For what it is worth, the younger people who are interested in learning rather than going through the motions in order to complete some goal are to be commended. But the reality might be a lot of people do not appreciate or understand the value of learning until it does become a matter of the Discovery Channel being the lecturer.

        That may be why there is a propensity to build lux

        • by pikine (771084)

          That may be why there is a propensity to build luxury four year resorts with fancy dorms and gyms at the universities. It may be the marketing that keeps students around.

          It's complicated. The universities reap what they sow, attracting the wrong kind of students. And then after exhausting funds on fancy buildings, the universities are unable to provide education to the students who actually enrolled to study. I can't blame the students if you're fostering an environment not for learning but for distractions

    • by Anonymous Coward

      How do you make money out of open source? Well, one way is to provide open source consulting. The bulk gets given away--the code might not have been yours in the first place. Someone wants something special, they pay you to do the work. The code, if any, (eventually, time frame of a couple months, leaving the customer some competetive advantage window) works its way back to mainline, ensuring customer isn't dependent on your continued existence. The upshot of this is that end users don't need to pay over an

    • by artor3 (1344997) on Friday November 29, 2013 @10:36PM (#45558987)

      I looked through the links now and I'm getting this subtext that Thun is sick of dealing with the bullshit that comes from trying to work within the framework of established universities and their entrenched faculties

      That's not what the article says at all. The schools did a pilot program, and of the students taking the course on Udacity, only 50% passed, compared to ~75% of the classroom students.

      I'd love for Udacity to succeed too, but you've got to accept reality. As of right now, Udacity isn't as effective as a traditional classroom. Now, it's not useless -- 50% passing is still a lot of people getting an education.

      Perhaps this just comes down to people learning in different ways: for some people, face-to-face interaction with teacher and classmates is essential to their progress. For others, they learn best from individual study. The second group can excel with MOOCs. But traditional classrooms will remain for the first group. Both groups end up winning -- the second because they have cheap and easy access to education, and the first because the reduced demand for classroom seats will drive down prices.

      • But traditional classrooms will remain for the first group.

        Then let them pay for the extra help that brick-and-mortar colleges and hand-holding instructors offer those who have difficulty learning on their own. I question whether the lower pass rate of the MOOC's is really an indication of inferiority. Maybe what it's bringing out is that some students shouldn't pass. At a university level, it's not enough to learn the material in the course as though it was HS. You should also be able to take the basics from that course and learn more on your own. If you can't lea

      • by Dr. Spork (142693)
        You make a good point, but then again, if the passing rates were that low in college-style courses, why would we think that the Udacity system will do any better with vocational education? I don't think the change of direction happened only because of the numbers. But one possibility that I didn't consider earlier is that Thrun may have pivoted to vocational education because there, nobody is really looking over your shoulder and checking if your product is any good. So if your educational product sucks, ta
      • by jelizondo (183861)

        There are several points on which MOOCs are different from regular Universities:

        1) Typically, there are no formal requirements to enroll. If I want to take (say) CS 301 in a formal setting, I must have completed the previous courses. In a MOOC, I can try my hand and probably fail, but no one stops me from trying.

        2) Many people find the course title interesting and sign-up only to drop a few weeks later, when the material proves above their competence and/or interest.

        3) People who try MOOCs, in my opinion an

      • by dcollins (135727)

        "Both groups end up winning -- the second because they have cheap and easy access to education, and the first because the reduced demand for classroom seats will drive down prices."

        Well, maybe. One possible problem: Is the second group so diminishingly small that there's no business case for the MOOC? Obviously, Thrun and others tried to bull-through MOOCs for the huge mass of students failing at remedial math -- even though there's mountains of pre-existing research that it's an unworkable fit for those sk

    • by achileas (2927229)
      I agree wholeheartedly, but with widespread cutbacks and the like causing even public flagship universities to act more like the 'University' of Phoenix (okay, slight hyperbole), universities (and their state government patrons) are doing a well-enough job of killing the university model -- and that is a bad thing. You'll hear the same from many disgruntled faculty who are being heavily pressured to put their courses fully online, typically by recording lecturettes and writing summaries to hold students' ha
  • MS the new VoTech (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The BS is the new high school degree. So now the MS is the new VoTech? Sheesh, people are getting stupid. I actually took electronics VoTech the last two years of high school in the late 80's, and we covered Karnaugh mapping, small signal response, assembly level programming, etc.

  • by Jonah Hex (651948) <hexdotms.gmail@com> on Friday November 29, 2013 @08:43PM (#45558593) Homepage Journal
    and shifting your efforts [slate.com] towards people who can complete courses, those who can do well in traditional college courses.

    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.

    The way Fast Company has it, Thrun chucks those San Jose State students under the self-driving Google car faster than he chugs up a hill on his custom-made road bike, leaving a panting Max Chafkin in the dust to ponder the following Thrunism: “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. It's a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

    Apparently students fail MOOCs because those students have the gall to be poor.

    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,” Jonathan Rees noted. “However, the masses at San Jose State don’t appear to be ready for the commodified, impersonal higher education that MOOCs offer.” Thrun’s cavalier disregard for the SJSU students reveals his true vision of the target audience for MOOCs: students from the posh suburbs, with 10 tablets apiece and no challenges whatsoever—that is, the exact people who already have access to expensive higher education.

    • by qbzzt (11136)

      Because a startup is obligated to serve those who need help that it cannot provide, rather than those who make the best use of its technology?

      • Obligated? Not in general (in this case, the startup had agreed to a partnership that involved serving these students, so it does represent a failure-in-contracting, whether because they overestimated the quality of their product or because they failed to come to an understanding with the customer about what was expected and what would be delivered. Not uncommon problems; but not virtues.)

        However, while nobody is obligated to provide a universal product, this particular failure suggests a very dramatic n
        • by qbzzt (11136)

          Udacity is doing a good job (based on my, admittedly limited, experience) providing extra training for mid-career professionals. That is a bigger market, for most industries, than college-age students who want to get into the industry.

      • Because a startup is obligated to serve those who need help that it cannot provide, rather than those who make the best use of its technology?

        When you make promises about radically upending education for everyone, it turns out you have to actually include everyone.

        • A sufficiently vigorous exclusion theoretically fulfills the requirements of 'radically upending', if perhaps not the spirit of the request...

          And boy are problems easier when you just reject the ones you don't know how to solve, then give yourself a gold star...
    • Thrun’s cavalier disregard for the SJSU students reveals his true vision of the target audience for MOOCs: students from the posh suburbs, with 10 tablets apiece and no challenges whatsoever—that is, the exact people who already have access to expensive higher education.

      That's trying to turn an educational issue into a class/economic issue. MOOC's have the potential to do just the opposite - allow good students to get a good education, regardless of how much money they have. What makes the author think that all good students come from "posh suburbs"? People from working class and poor families can't be smart? Talk about condescension and prejudice.

      With the already exorbitant and fast rising costs of college, we're probably moving away from a meritocracy. In the early 20th

    • Maybe higher education really won't work for everyone,

      It's possible, ya know. Just because we want it to, that's not a magical guarantee that it can.

  • by Animats (122034) on Friday November 29, 2013 @08:53PM (#45558637) Homepage

    Vocational education by correspondence has a long history. There was a big boom in it a century ago. Popular Mechanics, for 1920: [hathitrust.org] "Learn the automobile trade at home - spare times" - Dyke's Correspondence School of Motoring.

    International Correspondence Schools [wikipedia.org] was established in 1890, and they're still in business. For decades, they had ads in Popular Mechanics, Popular Electronics, etc. By 1906 total enrollments reached 900,000. The dropout rates were high; only one in six made it past the first third of the material in a course. Only 2.6% of students who began a course finished it. Udacity had stats like that at times.

    "The regular technical school or college aims to educate a man broadly; our aim, on the contrary, is to educate him only along some particular line." - Clarke, "The Correspondence School", 1906

    "I'd aspired to give people a profound education--to teach them something substantial, but the data was at odds with this idea." ... "At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment." - Thrun, 2013

    Not much has changed.

    • Pending the invention of strong AI (which will certainly revolutionize 'individualized instruction'; but also sort of make all non-recreational human effort irrelevant...), it's difficult to imagine what would provide the change in kind, cheap, remote, delivery of actually-not-lousy education, rather than incremental changes in the degree of difficulty and cost of just delivering information from Point A to Point B.

      We've demonstrated, at length, that mere information delivery is well within the scope of
  • the traditional education system needs change

    “The older college system is not for all, and some people learn better on their own. It’s an antiquated system, especially in IT.”

    “Schools that are based around 2 years of intensive, hands-on IT training are much better equipped than those spending on English or composition classes. That’s how you can be more flexible and keep up with the industry. Even awarding badges would make the system more relevant.”

  • Pulling off the "if employers like this emphasis" part would be interesting in itself. Attempting to found a new vocationally-oriented, for-profit university specializing in technology is not a new idea. That's the ITT model, and several of their competitors. But these degrees have never gotten much traction among employers. They aren't worthless, per se, but they aren't anywhere near the value of a regular CS degree from a respected university.

  • LOL (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dcollins (135727) on Friday November 29, 2013 @10:00PM (#45558859) Homepage

    "If employers like this emphasis, it might be a bigger threat to the academic status quo than offering traditional college courses."

    Please. Here is a list of technologies that did NOT result in the demise of college education:

    - Books mass-produced on the printing press.
    - Correspondence courses in the early 1900's, engaged by millions of hopeful learners at the time.
    - Radio or television programming.
    - Software-based learning from the 1960's onward.
    - Online courses from the 1990's onward.
    - MOOC in the 2010's onward.

    I really don't understand the Slashdot mass delusion that this or any technology could mean the death of colleges in any short- to medium time frame.

    • in the past we had more trades / apprenticeship and traditional college courses was not for all.

      Now more people are going to traditional college courses and they have been dumbed down a long with turning out people loaded with skill gaps.

      the ITT's and devry's are kind of roped in the traditional college courses and can maybe be better off if they did not need to give out traditional college degrees and give out badges.

    • by artor3 (1344997)

      Well, college tuition is dangerously high, and rising. A disruptive technology like MOOCs could introduce some competition and deflate the tuition bubble before it bursts and torpedoes our economy. So a lot of people want to see MOOCs succeed. The "death" of colleges is hyperbole, but they could certainly do with less demand.

  • If I understand correctly TFA, MOOCs are not useful to students, no company found how to make money on them, and universities offer some of them just by fear someone else would and make them irrelevant.

    Is that the next bubble ready to explode?

    • by dcollins (135727)

      Yes indeed. The only sad thing is that they're not publicly traded so there's no opportunity to short-sell them.

      • by manu0601 (2221348)
        But there is a good point: with the subprime crisis, people that went banckrupt lost their home and the home's value colapsed, which means both the people and the banks were harmed. Here when the student go bankrupt, the bank will not be able to takes the acquired knowledge away, which means only the bank will be harmed.
  • The editors must be still a bit hung over from the one-two punch of Thanksgiving and then crazy deal-chasing on Black Friday.

    http://slashdot.org/story/13/08/18/219252/big-mooc-on-campus-georgia-techs-6600-ms-in-cs [slashdot.org]

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