“We owe it to you, our hard working students, that we do whatever we can to ensure your certificate is as valuable as possible.”
- Sebastian Thrun, “Phasing out certificates of free courseware completion,” Udacity Blog, Wednesday, April 16, 2014.
So explained Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun a few days ago, in a development that surprised absolutely nobody. Coursera has found its only reliable source of revenue charging for its Signature Track courses. It seems only natural that Udacity would eventually do the same.
Yet the way that Thrun phrased this development strikes me as incredibly interesting. “We owe it to you, our hardworking students…” – …to stop giving away our services for free… …to make you fill out more paperwork than before… …to subject you to the modern Internet-based security apparatus… No, actually…”[to] do whatever we can to ensure your certificate is as valuable as possible.”
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this here, but I think this announcement raises profound questions about what education actually is, or perhaps simply what it’s supposed to accomplish. Is higher education a good thing because of the skills it represents or is it a good thing because you have it and others don’t? As you might imagine, I’m in the former category. MOOC providers seem to be in the latter, which is kind of ironic when you consider the fact that their goal is to educate anyone and everyone.
How do I know? Here’s Thrun’s explanation for the change in that post:
Since its inception, Udacity has issued many tens of thousands of certificates. To get such a certificate, a student had to sign up and make it through the online courseware. Identity checking was never part of our certification. Neither were mentor-supervised projects, which we now offer for an increasing number of courses.
We have now heard from many students and employers alike that they would like to see more rigor in certifying actual accomplishments.
More rigor means fewer people. If more rigor meant the same number of people, then employers wouldn’t care. If so, they’d be able to play one Udacity “graduate” off against another and pay lower wages. Using Sebastian Thrun’s reasoning, the more people who opt for these verified credentials, the less valuable they’ll become.
Pin the average MOOC enthusiast up against the wall, and they’ll tell you that they support the idea of thinking creatively and outside the box. John Warner does this (metaphorically) to Tom Friedman here and much hilarity ensues:
“So, according to [Google's Laszlo] Bock and Friedman, the best way to succeed in the current economy is to challenge oneself intellectually and creatively and show differentiation from the herd.
This is why Thomas Friedman is a consistent critic of educational movements such as MOOCs or the Common Core State Standards, because the standardization of education threatens the ability of students to meet these goals, and indeed, they threaten the very soul of what makes our country great, American individualism.
Wait, what’s that? You’re saying that Thomas Friedman is a cheerleader for MOOCs and the CCSS? You’re telling me that he thinks that MOOCs are a “revolution” where the best and brightest super-professors can remotely teach us all?
I’m confused. What are people supposed to do? Should we be herding students into homogenized online courses and preparing our students to do well on a battery of standardized tests, or should we be developing independent thinkers and problem solvers?”
I would respectfully suggest that we owe it to our hardworking students to actually give them the best education possible, one that trains them to think creatively and differently because nobody can take that away from them and nobody will think creatively exactly same way. I would also suggest that whether you pay for a certificate or not at the end of your extremely rigorous MOOC (with no required reading) has no bearing on whether you learned anything from it or not. It does, however, have an extraordinary bearing on whether or not MOOC providers will eventually sink into an abyss of red ink from which they will never emerge again.
Perhaps what this suggests most of all then is why for-profit education is a contradiction in terms.