Faced with low completion rates in MOOCs, Udacity shifts focus to corporate training
Starting in January 2014, Udacity will offer technical training courses from corporate partners such as Google, Salesforce.com, Autodesk, and Nvidia. While the courses will offer accreditation, they will not be free.
The promise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) was a big one. The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the “budding revolution in global online higher education.”
“Nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity,” wrote Friedman.
Image: Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, photographed by Martin E. Klimek for USA TODAY
Udacity itself originally promised to provide education “free to the world and accessible everywhere.” Yet Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun found that he was unable to deliver on that promise.
"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product," Thrun was quoted as saying in a Fast Company article. "It was a painful moment."
The problem is that while a MOOC can attract tens or even hundreds of thousands of students, very few of them (less than 10%) ever complete the course. Of those who complete it, not all of them pass. Udacity rode the wave of optimistic rhetoric about the open education revolution, but underneath all the hype it is still a company. Given the failure of its initial product offering, Udacity is pivoting. In entrepreneurship lingo, that means that it is changing its strategy based on its early experiences.
The company has announced a new selection of courses offered by corporate partners such as Google, Autodesk, Salesforce.com, and Intuit, among others. The companies produce and pay for the courses, and in return they get to access and train a pool of potential recruits. Some of the companies are also using the platform to offer training to their own employees.
Image: Screen shot of new Udacity course, "Intro to Data Science"
Thrun recently announced on his blog the launch of Udacity’s “Data Science and Big Data” track, built in partnership with Cloudera. Courses cost between $100 and $150 and students who complete and pass the course will receive credits and a certificate. The courseware is still available for free.
Udacity has received significant criticism about this change of course, notably from MOOC expert George Siemens, who wrote, “This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs. Thrun tied his fate too early to VC funding. As a result, Udacity is now driven by revenue pursuits, not innovation.”
On the other hand, most MOOC platforms are not yet profitable and there has yet to be established a sustainable business model for MOOCs. Thrun’s approach is not as idealistic as much of the discourse around open education, but his approach is just one of many in the rapidly fragmenting field of MOOCs. A profit-driven model could have interesting applications for other MOOC platforms or even for education at large.