Sebastian Thrun confuses me. He is without a doubt a very bright person, with a resume that includes Google, self-driving cars, and Glasses. He took a bold step early in the MOOC game when he left Stanford to start Udacity. When Coursera and edX aggressively signed up university partners, he actually contracted Udacity’s university affiliation (dropping Dino 101) to focus on technology only courses. He exhibits vision and focus – two vital and often rare attributes. This is the Thrun that I respect. In personal conversations with him, it’s clear that he is passionate about education and finding ways to make improvements and reduce costs. I’ve spoken with many students, in different parts of the world, that have benefited greatly from his work at Udacity. While it’s easy from an academic’s chair to critique small aspects of MOOCs (such as lack of interactivity or lack of acknowledgement of existing literature), he is making a real difference in the lives of people. When the media went into a frenzy with the disappointing results of the SJSU pilot, Thrun continued with his “iterate rapidly, learn rapidly” model of course development.
It’s the other Thrun that confuses me. He says things like:
- In the future we will only have 10 universities, and his will be one of them (when I met him in Drumheller last, he said he never made that statement)
- That a ‘magic formula’ is emerging for moocs/online learning. And then lists a series of interventions that most masters education students would cite in literature that dates back many years, even decades.
These proclamations are good for media play (after all, folks like TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein – personal motto: “overhyping and under thinking education since I got a keyboard” see here – are eager for these types of statements because it drives traffic. The Onion states it well.
Yesterday, Thrun pulled another confusing move in announcing Open Educational Alliance. Thrun is absolutely right when he states that the reason this kind of alliance is needed is because the existing university system has failed in providing technology courses that meet the needs of learners. I argued a similar strand in a keynote at U of Wisconsin-Madison: because universities have not kept pace with many knowledge fields, a shadow learning economy has developed. MOOCs address the gap between knowledge needs today and the lethargy of universities. In this regard, I applaud what Udacity is doing to prepare individuals with employable skills.
What confuses me is the lack of reference to or connection with the existing open education movement. This is a frustrating Silicon Valley attribute. Don’t learn from others. Learn it yourself. By joining existing networks, you add power to an existing structure. By creating your own, you subvert other networks and create your own integrated power structure.
I encourage Thrun to connect with existing openness projects, consider open licensing, and evaluate the potential impact of contributing to, rather than competing with them. If needed, I could broker an introduction to David Wiley. Come to think of it, I’ll share a copy of my presentation at ICDE next month on How MOOCs are Derailing Open Education.