From MOOCs to OCs


“When I called a MOOC a lousy product I wasn’t kidding,” says Sebastian Thrun, the prime mover of the modern MOOC movement and the vast hype that came to surround it, in a new interview at Pando Daily. The fatal flaw in the “classic MOOC,” Thrun now says, is that it was free. You can only have a decent MOOC if you get rid of the MO and just have the OC.

“It’s not a MOOC [anymore] because we end up charging for it,” Thrun says, in describing the new online courses offered by his company, Udacity, which require students to pay a fee to receive a “service layer” of mentorship. “I feel confident asking people for money because their money is better spent on this than doing a free course and dropping out after a week.”

But doesn’t charging tuition subvert the grand promise that free online courses would “democratize” higher education?

Replies Thrun: “All our material is still available for free. If you’re a student who can’t afford the service layer you can take the MOOC, on demand, at your own pace. If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.”

The poor get the “lousy.” The affluent get the “magic.”

As history professor Jonathan Rees delicately puts it, “Pardon me while I go vomit.”

But Thrun deserves the last word: “I am a total friend of honesty.”

Image: “Wreck of School House,” from Library of Congress.

5 thoughts on “From MOOCs to OCs

  1. Jeremy

    The fatal flaw in the “classic MOOC,” Thrun now says, is that it was free.

    For better or worse, I’ve kinda felt the same thing about the web as a whole for well over a decade now. Search engines, for example, are free. Think about how much better they might be if the searchers themselves, rather than the advertisers, paid for them. What might be different about the way they operate? Would they function exactly like they do now, only without advertising? Or would the fundamental interaction be something different, more engaged, more user-controllable?

    MOOC idealistic hypocrisies aside, we at least now get to see how they function, both when and when you do not actually have to pay for the service that you are getting. We’ve never been able to have that comparison for most of the web’s other “free” services.

  2. yt75


    Agree with your point (and of course it doesn’t mean free cannot also exists), but then as for ebooks, a key aspect which is lacking for me, would a real separation between some “private bookshelves managers”(which in the case of ebooks or websites, means just an account with work references and licenses/access rights aspects, like a web bookmarks list basically, or list of ISBNs for books) on one side, and shops/authors/editors/publishers on the other.
    Because clearly an environment with 3 or 4 monsters each doing both the “private bookshelves management aspect” and “the selling (if not publishing) aspects” isn’t going to work for different reasons, the “no privacy at all on your bookshelf list of references” not being the least of them.

  3. Daniel Cole

    I’m sympathetic to Jeremy’s questions above, but I’m wondering what users would have to pay in order to compete? I’m afraid that the “free” internet has probably spoiled people to the point that many of us are too attached to the advertising-subsidized services we’re used to to give them up for the sake of transparency and the public good. An analogy to the food industry might be relevant, if we consider the choice between cheap industrial agro products and less convenient or more expensive local and true organic foods. I wonder how low the price might have to go before people would be willing to opt out of “free”.

    Perhaps I’m being overly cynical, but most of the conversations I have with people about net neutrality, consumer profiling, spying, etc. seem to involve a short lived indignation at the FCC, ISPs, Facebook, Google, NSA, etc. But it’s immediately followed by a rising level of impatience if the general attitude of the conversation shifts from one of scapegoating to anything more proactive and results oriented. And I don’t mean to sound like a snob, because it’s likewise difficult to reconcile myself to the idea of paying for or giving up many of the online services I now take for granted, despite believing that my usage is a type of complicity. Sadly, I wonder if, as with climate change, a top down catalyst won’t be necessary if actual change is to occur.

  4. Laraine

    Not that he’d give a flying fig, but I can’t quite make up my mind if I despise Thrun for his previous hypocrisy about making education open to all or for his current honesty about what MOOCs in the U.S. have always been about, figuring out how to make money out of people’s desire to educate themselves or, in the case of those who actually completed MOOCs, further educate themselves.

    But it’s good to have him around as an indicator of what so much commercial (as opposed to those in the school trenches trying hard to make online learning a lifeline for students who can’t afford college), ed tech hoopla is really all about:”If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.”

    Thrun should make an appearance on HBO’s Silicon Valley. He’d fit right in with the guru-inspired tech moguls who want to pick your brain and pocket with one hand while writing a Ted talk with the other.

  5. Derrick

    I think Sebastian is guilty of 20-20 hindsight vision, and perhaps of being ineloquent. The promise of MOOCs still is that you really can educate yourself for free, on your own time, with classes taught by experts in their fields. That’s pretty powerful stuff. I’ve dabbled in many a MOOC and walked away feeling a little more knowledgeable.

    This research speaks to that effect:

    But like most things, paying for something (A) improves the quality of service that can be offered and (B) makes students feel like they’ve made an investment. It’s like paying to adopt a cat even though shelters could easily give them away — the fees help with both parts. Maybe I would have finished at least one MOOC had I paid for it.

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