PandoDaily posted an interesting Q&A with Sebastian Thrun, the “Godfather of MOOCs,” today. Unfortunately, nowhere in the interview with the Udacity founder did they hit on what I consider the most important problem in the current landscape.
The whole conversation focused on course completion rates and pricing. According to Thrun, less than 10 percent of students complete courses. It would be impossible, he said, to revolutionize and democratize education at that rate. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that most of the students Pando and Thrun were referring to are using MOOCs as an alternative to a traditional four-year college. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
According to Alexa, relative to the general internet population, people who don’t have a college degree are greatly under-represented on Udacity, while people with graduate degrees are greatly over-represented. Omitting that information changes the whole context of the conversation. No matter the audience, a ten percent completion rate is troubling, but that’s a secondary problem. The bigger problem? They have the wrong audience!
This issue isn’t exclusive to Udacity; it’s a problem all MOOCs must address. Take edX, another popular MOOC provider, for example. The joint venture between Harvard and MIT is on a mission to do the same thing Thrun and Udacity are: provide affordable, accessible education to the masses. However in a Financial Times post last year, edX president Anant Agarwal revealed that of the 1.9 million people enrolled at the time, 72 percent were university graduates, 31 percent had master’s degrees and 7 percent had doctorates.
Current MOOCs users are already well-educated. The way they use MOOCs is comparable to sitting in on a class for the thrill of it. They don’t, and never will, have the same incentive to finish an online course that a highschool graduate using it as an alternative to college will. And until highschool graduates using MOOCs as an alternative to traditional college are the core users, they won’t be revolutionizing education or spreading it to the masses.
So, it seems to me, that instead of focusing on increasing completion rates, Udacity should be focused on changing its audience. They wont know if their content is compelling enough to replace college until they do. The problem that Udacity, and all MOOCs, have is a branding problem, a marketing problem.
Progressive companies also need to play their part. They need to ensure students using MOOCs as an alternative form of education that they won’t automatically be frowned upon for foregoing traditional college. In fact, to me, completing your whole college education using free or cheap online courses offered by some of the most prestigious college and universities in the world shows courage, a healthy level of defiance and an incredible amount of discipline. I think in order for MOOCs to become as mainstream as many of us would like them to, that assurance will be necessary. If I could do it all again, I think that’s the path I’d take and I’ll certainly be open to hiring someone who does.