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Sebastian Thrun confuses me: Thoughts on Udacity’s openness project

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.


  1. George, I love this point “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. ”

    Is it possible that commercial MOOC providers find it impossible to acknowledge *anything* of value in systems they consider broken and in need of fixing? Partnering with existing projects and initiatives – especially those that emerge from higher ed – disrupts the entire “education is broken” narrative that seems to drive much of the Silicon Valley edtech movement.

    I do disagree with your point that ignoring existing research is a small matter. As one of those masters grads who continually harps on this, I see this as important because, for better of worse, MOOC’s are on the forefront of online learning in the public consciousness. Everyone is watching them, and interest in online learning is at an all time high. Commercial MOOC’s have thrust online learning into general consciousness and every stumble they make – many stumbles that could have been prevented by adopting some basic principles in online learning – is amplified and held up as evidence that online education is ineffective and doesn’t work. It’s a label that many who have worked for many years in distributed education have worked hard to shake off and I fear it is leading many directly to the trough of online learning disillusionment for the second time.

    Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  2. Jordan wrote:

    It seems pretty ironic that “open” has been reverted back to the image of the neon sign through corporatization and MOOC hysteria. As you say, it seems that none of the major players have any connection to nor respect for the roots of the open movement and they certainly have different agendas.

    Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Tim Klapdor wrote:

    Agree totally that Thrun is a mess of contradictions. This latest one is just as mystifying. I think Clint is right that there is a unwavering need to *disrupt everything* coming from the Silicon Valley edtech movement which might go some of the way to explaining it.

    There seems to be very little effort put into understanding the past or the present, learning to coexist or attempt at integration – and I’d say thats because they are focussed only on disruption and the future they are planning.

    I’d say their repeated use of ‘Open’ without any demonstrable signs of openness (free≠open to me) looks and smells like a case of perverting the open movement to seem relevant.

    In this way their ‘disruptive’ acts are not endearing them to the social networks that underpin the open movement or it proponents.

    I’d agree with this sentiment form Diane Ravitch – “The disruption was expected to produce innovation, more typically, it produced turmoil and demoralization.”

    Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  4. If we’re serious about supporting truly open learning that gives a hand to those with limited options then surely the OER University is one of the places to start.

    I’d suggest you also broker an intro with some of those people as well.

    Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Permalink
  5. Rolin Moe wrote:

    I agree in principle, but (not knowing Mr. Thrun) I question the idea that he is either unaware of or ignoring existing research. His aiMOOC was borne of education theory from an artificial intelligence perspective (distributed learning, expert systems), and the MOOC signifier seemed to be a happy accident for his brand. Getting into his proclamations for education…that’s dangerous on a societal level because his brand of education (teaching machines) is unaware of at least 30+ years of edu/psych development (the last time CogSci and Edu research were in lockstep). It’s why Anant Agarwal can shout from rooftops that people read 1970s articles about memory recall, because it fits the lens purview of the CS/EE/AI folk. And that lens puts the student in the form of a consumable in the machine. And that is dangerous.

    Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 11:37 pm | Permalink