Liz Gannes

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Amid Controversy, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun Is Relearning How to Teach

“I don’t know why people react so extremely to what we do,” said Sebastian Thrun, the co-founder and CEO of Udacity, a company that’s trying to change the world’s preconceived notions about higher education.

Oh wait, maybe that’s why.

Thrun’s dismay comes after a quick-spreading article yesterday from “Inside Higher Ed” which said that Udacity’s much-heralded partnership to teach remedial courses at San Jose State had been “paused” due to low pass rates. That turned into reports that the program was “suspended” and is currently setting off another round of commentary that maybe those smartypants tech folks really don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to actually getting people to learn.

Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun

Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun

Here are the facts: Udacity held three San Jose State online classes for 274 students, with more than half of the students coming from outside the university — for instance, one was a remedial math class devoted to high school students who had already failed a similar class previously. Pass rates in the three classes were between 20 percent and 44 percent. That’s not good. So Udacity and San Jose State jointly agreed to hold off on the next round of classes, though they still want to resume the program in the next academic year.

But some aspects of the pilot program were actually tremendously positive, from Udacity’s perspective. Eighty-three percent of the students stuck with the course till the end, and they were specifically chosen because they were “low-motivation students,” Thrun said.

The student feedback on the course had been that they wanted more time to complete it — especially because many of them do not have computers at home — and so Thrun said he was eager to resume the classes on a more self-paced model.

As he put it, “I am particularly surprised that certain outlets look at pass rates irrespective of student population. As if inner city high school kids are to fare as well as college students.”

In fact, in a meeting at Udacity’s office in Mountain View, Calif., the day before the story broke, the first thing Thrun wanted to talk about was the San Jose State program. A completion rate of 83 percent is unheard of for a MOOC — a massive open online course, the genre that Thrun is trying to pioneer.

By contrast, Udacity’s usual completion rate is three percent. Think about that — if less than three percent of people complete a class, an even smaller sliver pass the class. So in a way, the San Jose State pass rates aren’t so bad, for a MOOC.

But really, the pass rates are bad. And there’s a lot more to be done if MOOCs are to be effective.

What Thrun said he has learned — across the open online courses, the partnership with San Jose State, and another with Georgia Tech that will offer masters degrees in computer science — is that Udacity needs to focus.

Rather than providing a platform for MOOCs, bringing in professors from prestigious universities and expanding to a broad range of topics, Udacity will put its efforts into equipping people for careers in technology.

That plays to the company’s strengths — after all, Thrun was a computer science professor at Stanford, he has close ties to Google (where he helped start the self-driving car project) and he’s a part of the Silicon Valley startup network through investors like Andreessen Horowitz.

And it also sets up Udacity to make an impact where one is needed: All sorts of companies want to hire more and better computer programmers, and there’s a gaping lack of computer science classes at many schools, especially ones that cover the skills people use in the industry today.

“Every single thing in computer science wasn’t there 10 years ago,” Thrun noted.

Thrun’s not the only one making this case — the explosion of new online coding bootcamps and advocacy groups includes Code.org, Hacker School, Girls Who Code, Dev BootcampApp Academy and many more.

But compared to many other programs, Thrun wants to find a way to teach effectively online. He said that over the course of the spring pilot at San Jose State, Udacity saw that phone calls and text reminders and virtual whiteboard sessions and tutoring were crucial to keeping students engaged.

It’s not a surprise that personal contact and mentoring works, Thrun said. “There’s no novelty here — go to any online university and they do that.” But it’s something Udacity learned by doing.

And further, Udacity wants to turn away from the structure of semester-long courses. “Probably the biggest learning is we have to be asynchronous and non-linear, not on fixed timing and a fixed path,” Thrun said.

A newer Udacity course features co-hosts

A newer Udacity course features co-hosts

So rather than operating with a fixed deadline, each course should have open enrollment and be broken into little units that are full of constant tests to assess if the student understands the material and can apply it. Think of it like completing levels of Angry Birds, Thrun said. Playing doesn’t feel like work, though you get better all the time — and if you quit the game it’s not seen as “dropping out.”

What Udacity wants to do now is create content that’s engaging, Thrun said. Rather than videotaping standard lectures, it now has an on-site studio where it films courses, usually with two on-camera hosts, plus lots of post-production graphics, overhead demonstrations and quizzes.

Thrun said he now thinks in terms of “actors” and “scenes,” and often finds that energetic graduate students can be the best teachers.

He’s starting to make Udacity sound more like other online video education companies like Lynda.com and CreativeLive, rather than his MOOC friends at Coursera and edX, which are closely aligned with traditional universities.

The Udacity classes still look pretty amateur — the company could probably stand to hire a couple more Hollywood production types — but they do seem an improvement on a professor droning on in front of a camera.

“We’re a media production company that’s fast and data-driven,” Thrun said. “You have to understand that teaching online is different, just like movies are different from the stage and TV is different from radio.”

Is this evolving approach a good one for remedial courses at San Jose State? Maybe, maybe not. It’s clear Udacity is learning as it goes. But this early MOOC trial is not the end of either traditional or online education.


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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus