Sebastian Thrun: Free MOOCs just don’t work

July 10, 2014 at 9:32 am 9 comments

Great interview with Sebastian Thrun.  I particularly found fascinating his candid response to this important question.

That doesn’t sound like democratizing education, if only the affluent can afford the version that works.

I would be careful to say this is not democratizing it. Any alternative path is actually much more expensive. We managed to lower the cost by a factor of ten. Going to the extreme and saying it has to be absolutely free might be a bit premature. I care about making education work. Everything else being equal, I would love to do this at the lowest possible price point. Where we’ve converged is right. You don’t need a college degree anymore. I would be careful with the conclusion that this is the end of democratization. We still have the free model for students. It just doesn’t work as well — it’s just a fact.

via A Q&A with “Godfather of MOOCs” Sebastian Thrun after he disavowed his godchild | PandoDaily.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Charles Severance  |  July 10, 2014 at 9:47 am

    I don’t understand why folks keep interviewing the person on the planet who seems to understand the least about the value and purpose of MOOCs. Thrun has failed in the MOOC area. Others are succeeding wonderfully. Dear Press – Stop asking Thrun for his opinion – it is meaningless and irrelevant.

    • 2. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  July 10, 2014 at 11:17 am

      Hi Chuck,

      People keep interviewing him because it’s pretty rare for the instigator of an innovation to then turn around and refute it. This falls into the “man bites dog” category of news.

      So, who’s succeeding wonderfully in MOOCs and what’s the evidence of success in terms of student learning outcomes, not numbers of people signing up / dropping out or sticking through to the bitter end?


    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  July 11, 2014 at 9:14 am

      Thrun is meaningless and irrelevant? The guy who offered the first MOOC at Stanford to such fanfare? The guy who raised millions in venture capital to start Udacity? I disagree with his methods, but I appreciate his goals and am deeply impressed with his energy and intellect. There’s nothing that he “understands the least” about.

  • 4. tom abeles  |  July 10, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    First, let’s get past the standard argument that we are in the early stages.

    Second, we need to look at the profile of those delivering and taking these courses. Thrun failed when he took the worst possible case with students who were academically marginal and probably had personal learning styles that mitigated against success. One needs to look at those who completed these programs with or without applying for some type of certificate.

    Third, those looking for MOOC’s as a low cost vehicle for obtaining an academic degree would pay/are paying significantly more for other paths better suited to their learning style.

    There are many other issues:

    We find the same issues in international development. Behavioral Economics clearly brings these issues to the fore. Nobel Laureate Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is worth the read.

    Basically interviewing Thrun is using what Kahneman calls Systems 1- the quick, intuitive. System 2, the thinking and analyzing is more difficult and is needed to balance system 1.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  July 11, 2014 at 9:12 am

      Thrun didn’t take the worst possible case. He went after underprivileged kids in San Jose. That’s a completely different story than the developing world where they may be little educational infrastructure at all. That was his goal, to reach that latter group of kids. For his purposes, it didn’t work.

      I’ve met Thrun. He’s brilliant. He thinks and analyzes deeply. It’s completely wrong to characterize his perspectives as Systems 1.

      • 6. tom abeles  |  July 12, 2014 at 8:15 am

        Hi Mark

        First, I do not disagree that Thrun thinks deeply. So does Jeffrey Sacks, the economist who tried working in development. There is much to understand here. “under privileged” kids have singularly different issues starting pre pregnancy and going through P-12 school systems. Seeing problems/solutions through one’s computer screens and models is problematic.

        Semantic engines are helpful and maybe we will see Watson’s effectiveness is in challenging, first, those whose world is the logical and rational.

        My concern regarding Systems 1 is more regarding your piece which did not probe deep enough. Thrun completely ignores the C-MOOC;s of Siemens, Downes and others which plays off of lessons learned in brick space.

        As behavioral economists will tell you, not everyone operates in the rational and logical world.

  • 7. Aaron Massey  |  July 11, 2014 at 11:28 am

    Seems like the title of your post is a bit misleading. Thrun doesn’t say that free MOOCs don’t work. He says they don’t work as well as paid MOOCs. I don’t believe free MOOCs will ever live up to their hype, but saying they “don’t work” is almost like saying libraries “didn’t work” because providing free access to books didn’t suddenly educate the populace. For some, they did work. Even if free MOOCs developed with the goal of democratizing education fail at achieving that goal universally, they still provide some real value to some real people.

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  July 11, 2014 at 11:31 am

      His quote is, “We still have the free model for students. It just doesn’t work as well — it’s just a fact.” I did leave out “as well.” I’m not arguing that MOOCs have no value. They are not working for the goal that Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller originally created them for — to provide education to the developing world.

  • […] and teaching that we heard at the start — misunderstandings that even MOOC supporters (like here and here) have stopped […]


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