Udacity Official Declares MOOCs ‘Dead’ (Though the Company Still Offers...

Digital Learning

Udacity Official Declares MOOCs ‘Dead’ (Though the Company Still Offers Them)

By Jeffrey R. Young     Oct 12, 2017

Udacity Official Declares MOOCs ‘Dead’ (Though the Company Still Offers Them)

Udacity helped popularize the idea of offering college-level courses online to anyone for free, a format known as MOOCs (for Massive Open Online Courses). But this week a Udacity official called MOOCs “dead,” leading to questions about what that means for one of the company’s offerings (which still include free MOOCs).

It was Udacity vice president Clarissa Shen who this week said “they are dead,” when talking about MOOCs in an interview with The Economic Times in India. “MOOCs are a failed product, at least for the goals we had set for ourselves,” she told the newspaper. “Our mission is to bring relevant education which advances people in careers and socio-economic activities, and MOOCs aren't the way.”

Udacity’s co-founder, Sebastian Thrun, famously announced a “pivot” away from MOOCs back in 2013, and since then the company has focused its energies on paid sequences of courses called “nanodegrees” that it produces in cooperation with large tech employers. But it has continued to offer free versions of its course videos for those who don’t want or need a certificate of completion.

In an e-mail interview with EdSurge this week, Shen said that her statement was not meant as an announcement of a new strategy for Udacity. “It’s not a comment on our business model, but on what we aim for as success metrics with our students,” she said. “As you can see on our site, free content is still available.”

Focus on Projects

Shen stressed that the problem with the old MOOC model is a focus on video libraries for teaching. She said the strength of the nanodegree program is that students are required to complete projects. “We care about completion rates, projects student build, and ultimately career readiness,” she said. “MOOCs have been too content-only focused and not a model that engages our students deeply. They are an improvement on pure content libraries when done well, but as a product not what we felt achieved success for our students and industry partners.”

Asked whether the company might phase out free courses, she said that the company’s latest programs continue to include free versions. “There is no change there,” she added.

Dhawal Shah, co-founder of Class Central, which tracks MOOCs, says that “it’s plausible” that the company would move away from making new courses free at some point. “Free courses are a marketing channel to feed learners into the paid programs,” he said in an e-mail interview. “But Udacity is able to generate huge amounts of press at a regular basis by launching nanodegrees like the Self-Driving Car Nanodegree or the recently announced Flying Car nanodegree. So the free courses might not provide the same returns as they did early on.”

Shah argues that Udacity and other providers of large-scale online course have gradually created more and more paid services, and made it harder for students to find their free offerings.

The declaration that free online courses can’t solve education’s problems comes as no surprise to many traditional educators. “The roots of Udacity’s failure are in the word ‘product’ and their belief that an educational ‘product’ could possibly transform education,” argued John Warner, a blogger for Inside Higher Education, in a post this week.

Meanwhile, Udacity's pivot to professional education has brought the company commercial success. "Whatever Udacity is doing, it seems to be working,” wrote Shah in a blog post on ClassCentral earlier this month. "There are now over 18,000 Nanodegree graduates. Udacity is also on track to double its revenues."

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