“We owe it to you, our hardworking students…”

21 04 2014

“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.



6 responses

21 04 2014
The Sieve Manufacture Continues at Udacity | Hapgood

[…] Rees has more on this odd phrasing about what is essentially a decision to charge students for what used to be a free […]

21 04 2014
Jeanne Pickering

In every MOOC I’ve ever taken, there are students who start to go a bit crazy when they think that their answers are wrongly marked, their peer reviews late or unfair, they don’t understand the instructions for posting in the forums, they misunderstood and won’t get a passing grade for their certificate and so on. And I always wonder why they care so much. If their interest is in learning something, if they want to learn how to think and how to think creatively, then what possible difference could a certificate make to them?

After all, it’s not actual credit from Stanford or Harvard or Univ. of Penn or wherever. Those institutions are not attaching the value and worth of their credential to a free certificate just anybody in the world can get. Those institutions charge exorbitant amounts of money because they guarantee the exclusivity of their credential and they can not and will not have it cheapened.

So why would someone care about a certificate from a free online university course? It can only be because they are expecting to receive something else for that certificate. Perhaps they are a high school student assigned to take the course and this proves they finished. Perhaps an employer will look favorably on the certificate listed on a resume and they will get a raise or promotion or a job – at least, they hope their employer or teacher will.

I suspect employers (and/or college admissions officers) are providing feedback to the students (and to the MOOC providers) that there is no value to the certificate – after all, it’s free, anyone can get one and it might not even be the actual student who did the work! The next step was to start charging for the certificate. Now it looks a little more valuable since not just anybody can get one (it takes somebody with a little bit of money instead.) This has the wonderful advantage of, as you point out, bringing in some revenue as well.

The following steps will be increased gate-keeping. There will be pre-requisites. You have to take course A before you can take course B. There will be penalties for failure. Drop out of too many of our courses and we’ll start charging you for them. Get a discount for completing more certificated courses. Register and fail to finish a course and you pay for the next one.

The “massive” part of the MOOCs will, in time, fade away – the students already do, after all. There will be more and more gate-keeping to shore up the credibility of the credential and the amount that can be charged for it as a result. It’s the business model every single college and university in this country follows and the MOOCs are just courses currently supported by the administrations of those institutions.

22 04 2014

Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
An interesting post that asks the question: “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?”

22 04 2014
Pat Lockley

There is a weird international element to it perhaps – many in the global south will never get the chance to attend a Uni bar via a MOOC. Does a MOOC from one show greater knowledge, or, snake oil we’ve just rumbled?

27 04 2014
Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

[…] “We owe it to you, our hardworking students…“ […]

30 04 2014
Superprofessors are from Mars. Meanwhile back on Earth… | More or Less Bunk

[…] Actually, compared to any college class that I’ve ever been involved with that’s not much work at all (particularly, as seems to be true of every Coursera MOOC, there’s no required reading to go with that writing). And that comparison is the heart of the problem here. While an elite corps of superprofessors continuously wonder at how great it is to teach the under-educated masses all at once, Coursera and its ilk are plotting to make college irrelevant by doing everything they can to “ensure your [meaning their students'] certificate is as valuable as possible.” […]

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