Udacity Teams Up with San Jose State
The New York Times today broke the news that Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity is partnering with San Jose State University to offer “a series of remedial and introductory courses” to students. This announcement, while certainly part of the (almost) daily news updates in the press about “massively open online courses” (or MOOCs), is unique because, as the Times puts it, this is “the first time that professors at a university have collaborated with a provider of a MOOC… to create for-credit courses with students watching videos and taking interactive quizzes, and receiving support from online mentors.”
As I see it, this a very smart move by both Udacity and San Jose State. For the latter, the upside is both that the school may be able to lower costs and increase student outcomes for remedial courses (that, of course, very much remains to be seen) but also that San Jose State may be able, by incorporating MOOCs into their curriculum, forestall any future threats that MOOCs may have to their operating model. Notably, the agreement with Udacity maintains the presence of San Jose faculty in the courses, though the teaching/tutoring
work will also partly be borne by online mentors employed by Udacity. San Jose State is, therefore, maintaining at least a nominal control over the courses while still incorporating the basic model of a MOOC; for the purposes of these course offerings, San Jose can both verify the quality relative to their traditional offerings while at the same time make political hay for embracing new approaches using technology. Given the potential for increasing political and economic pressure that schools (particularly the mid-quality state institutions like San Jose State) are likely beginning to feel to utilize cost savings from MOOCs (see Kevin Carey’s article in the Washington Monthly a few months back), perhaps San Jose State did not have much of a choice.
This is also a shrewd move by Udacity. Of course, only time will tell how successful this experiment with
San Jose State will turn out to be, but then again, Udacity does not have anything to lose and everything to gain. While it surely is remarkable how swift and widespread the rise of the MOOCs have been, it is also very easy for many in academia to dismiss MOOCs as nothing more than a passing fad, all the rage today but nothing compared to the resilience of an Ivory Tower. If Udacity can conclusively demonstrate to San Jose State that it can improve outcomes at reduced costs in either introductory or remedial courses (courses which present their own unique challenges), then that will go a long way in establishing the right of the MOOC to remain at least a feature in higher education going forward. But even if the experiment cannot unambiguously demonstrate that the MOOC model beats out the traditional model, it will still show that Udacity is serious about improving education (and not just trying to maximize media hits or running up huge initial course enrollments) and will provide valuable feedback directly to San Jose State about how to leverage technology to improve education–both by lowering costs AND improving outcomes.
Of all the places that MOOCs should try to make their mark in higher education, introductory courses seem to be the most likely. But they can make an even bigger mark if they can improve remedial education. That would be a win-win for everybody: the MOOCs will secure their place as a positive force in education, students will win because they can obtain their remedial courses for minimal to zero cost and the colleges and universities will win because they can specialize exclusively in what they are supposed to be good at: offering quality higher education.