Udacity is not a charity.

27 06 2013

“As we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”

– Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 1791.

Do you remember Mohamed Noor? He’s the Duke biology superprofessor who briefly became a symbol for academic elitism after a terrible interview with the Chronicle a little while back. My contribution to that effort helped lead to a really helpful response on his blog. I’ve linked to that before here, but I’ve been meaning to note publicly that Noor there shows more interest in the welfare of the rest of the profession than any other superprofessor I’ve ever encountered. While Michael Sandel simply decries MOOC-related unemployment, Noor wants suggestions about what he can actually do about it.

I’m still thinking about that. However, I think I’ve come to a conclusion regarding another part of that post. Noor writes:

If MOOCs have such a net negative effect on the world and MOOC professors (or so-called “super-professors”) are complicit, why aren’t the critics being explicit in telling us, “Stop offering this free education to the world.” I could continue to offer a flipped class to my Duke students with the videos I’ve already made, but stop offering the videos to anyone outside of Duke University (or distribute them myself directly only to colleagues who swear to never share their existence with administrators). What of the MOOC students?

I’m not prepared to say, “Stop offering this free education to the world,” but since I have no power over Coursera or Udacity, I don’t think what I think matters very much. The better question would be to ask the MOOC providers, “How long are you willing to offer your product free to the world?” Thanks to a recent exchange between Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun and UC-Santa Barbara’s Chris Newfield, I’m now guessing not for very long at all.

I. The Background.

Let’s start with the links. This exchange began with an article by Newfield in Inside Higher Education about the Udacity/Georgia Tech MOOC-ish online CS degree. Newfield was looking for the business model behind it, and couldn’t find any. He writes:

In contrast, the strongest argument to skip internal development and hire MOOC companies has been the companies’ claim to bring revolutionary cost savings to colleges and their students with their revolutionary technology. Unfortunately for all concerned, there is no sign in the Udacity spreadsheets of massive online cost-cutting services. Nor can the savings that do appear be traced directly to the Udacity platform.

Sebastian Thrun responded on the Udacity blog with many points, but mostly by trying to direct the focus away from the costs of the program. For example:

If Dr. Newfield is right and our program is not changing the basic cost structure of higher education, then it must be the case that other graduate programs operate at similar costs. Yet tuition fees at comparable institutions are several times higher. This raises the obvious question: where does all the tuition money and the state support go? Can others, such as perhaps Dr. Newfield’s own institution, follow Georgia Tech’s lead and make high quality Masters degrees more affordable?

Thrun also suggested that the bulk of the revenue would come from students outside the ordinary highere education market, which supposedly makes all of Newfield’s math illegitimate.

“I haven’t found Dr. Thrun’s post so helpful about the numbers,” responded Newfield at his own blog, Remaking the University. Of course it isn’t. Businessmen aren’t transparent about their revenue projections since they need to sell themselves and their companies to investors. Unlike the leaders of Coursera, Thrun is quite savvy when it comes to selling his product, but I still think the non-math related parts of that post are a really big mistake because he basically pulls the rug out from under all the MOOC idealists out there who are in this for the good of humanity rather than for personal profit.

II. The Backpedal.

Newfield organized his response to Thrun’s post around his “retrenchment” of MOOC rhetoric. That’s something of an understatement. It’s more like a confession that Udacity is no longer going to be a MOOC provider. There’s a lot there worth reading in Newfield’s analysis, but I want to focus here on the very first one. As Newfield notes, six months ago Thrun told the Economist, “in 50 years there will be only ten universities left in the world.” Now he says:

I believe that online education will not replace face to face education, and neither is it supposed to. Just as film never replaced theater plays and many of us prefer to watch sports live in big stadiums, online will not abolish face to face interaction. It is a different modality with the potential to fundamentally change access and affordability.

This whole argument rests on the meaning of the word “replace.” No, people will not be firing face-to-face instructors and replacing them with MOOCs, but MOOCification still means a redirection of resources away from traditional education directly into the pockets of companies like Udacity and people like Sebastian Thrun.

Indeed, it is precisely the drop in labor costs that make MOOCs attractive to administrators. Let me repeat a quote that Britney used here the other day that makes this perfectly clear:

SUNY’s associate provost, Carey Hatch, said the system also plans to offer incentives to campuses to develop and consume online courses that meet general education requirements. Some courses could be “guided MOOCs” where a SUNY instructor helps SUNY students work their way through a course that was created by another institution.

“We hope to reach more students with the existing faculty that we have,” Hatch said.

[emphasis added]

Why not hire new ones? That’s too expensive. Indeed labor cost savings are about the only cost savings that MOOCs can guarantee.

You can already see this in Georgia Tech’s CS program. Here’s yet another IHE article on this subject:

Georgia Tech expects to hire only eight or so new instructors even as it takes its master’s program from 300 students to as many as 10,000 within three years, said Zvi Galil, the dean of computing at Georgia Tech.

Yet, as Newfield points out, the new program recognizes that faculty/student interaction is vital to make it successful. [More on that in a second.] So who’s going to be doing the interacting? Udacity staff. Yup, Georgia Tech is outsourcing its contact hours to a for-profit company. That’s a considerable number of computer science instructors (even if they were only just online instructors) who Georgia Tech will never have to hire. I’ll bet you anything they won’t get benefits or tenure either. After all, why should the private sector put up with the inconvenience have having to herd cats?

III. The Bait and Switch.

In 1741, Benjamin Franklin invented what came to be known as the Franklin Stove, a metal-lined fireplace that used far less wood than any alternative available at that time. When the colonial governor of Pennsylvania offered Franklin the 18th century equivalent of a patent on it for that jurisdiction, he declined, for the sake of the good of humanity. When a Maryland farmer named Thomas Moore patented the icebox in 1803, he announced that he wouldn’t enforce it for the same reason.

Now I’m not suggesting that Udacity should do the same with its platform (even though edX is open sourcing theirs), but that is what they would do if access to education was really their top priority. I’m guessing that edX is counting on the power of the Harvard and MIT brand names to power it through the competition. What exactly does Udacity have going for it? First mover advantage? How long will that last?

In short, Thrun is acting like he’s Benjamin Franklin when he’s actually being a lot more like Jay Gould. As Newfield (rather obviously) points out:

Dr. Thrun is the founder and CEO of a startup company. Since he operates in a capitalist economy, he is obligated to maximize returns to his company and not to other people, including his partners and the public. He must also market his products as of enormous benefit to every customer and to all mankind.

My use of the term “rather obviously” in introducing that quote is no slam on Newfield. For some reason, the MOOC messiah squad can’t see seem to see this rather obvious point even though it’s as plain as the nose on anyone’s face. More importantly, Thrun is already hinting at where this is all going:

From the very preliminary data I have seen, I believe that human contact and mentoring make a substantial difference in learning outcomes. The belief that education can be replaced by a computer program is a myth, driven in part by media eager to play upon people’s fears in an otherwise important, constructive debate.

Humans require food and shelter and health insurance. Therefore, human contact is expensive. You can’t raise that kind of money giving your product away for free forever, which is why I think Noor should be asking the MOOC providers not the critics about whether MOOCs should or will remain free for all.

Perhaps the problem with MOOCs isn’t the access, it’s the credit. When I write a book, I want as many people as possible to read it. I can understand how the same could be true of superprofessor lectures. But just listening to lectures and answering multiple choice questions isn’t college, it’s information transmittal. Even Sebastian Thrun admits that now. When Thrun comes out and says that nobody should get college credit for taking a MOOC without access to a qualified instructor, I’ll take his humanitarian bona fides more seriously.

In the meantime, since mere information transmittal will not generate the kinds of revenues that Udacity’s investors will inevitably demand, Udacity is trying a more restrictive angle. More MOOC providers will have to go this same direction in order to remain economically viable. And who can blame them? Udacity is not a charity. I blame all the people who invited for-profit companies into the very heart of higher education in the first place.



10 responses

27 06 2013

perhaps Udacity is fattening up the calf for market.

27 06 2013
Quotes: Benjamin Franklin on News (This is a Good Joke from Ben) | How To Be Healthy

[…] Udacity is not a charity. (moreorlessbunk.wordpress.com) […]

30 06 2013

IIRC, New Mexico has had this requirement for some time. Unless something has changed recently, this has nothing to do with MOOCs–the NM courses are fairly traditional online courses. Relevant info here: http://idealnewmexico.org/about-us

11 07 2013
To be a superprofessor is an act of aggression. | More or Less Bunk

[…] migrated down to the superprofessors who work for Coursera, as Mohamed Noor’s question here strongly suggests. In today’s IHE, MOLB reader Scott Newstok offers the perfect response to […]

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