Udacity Pivots and Education Remains Difficult

Udacity_logo_vert_orange_464x500While tens of thousands of people might sign up for a single massive open online course (MOOC), very few of them complete the course, and very few of those demonstrate competence  with and retain what they have learned.

So Udacity – founded by MOOC proponent Sebastian Thrun – has pivoted, slightly, according to this article from Fast Company. The company’s new focus is on paid tracks of classes in partnership with corporations hoping to train people in positions within emerging fields like “Data Science & Big Data.” These classes come with one-on-one coaching and certificates and will generally be cheaper than universities and technical schools. The idea is if you complete the track successfully, AT&T (or some other corporate sponsor) might very well hire you.

Udacity’s pivot suggests, perhaps, that MOOCs have reached the “Trough of Disillusionment” in Gartner’s “Hype Cycle.” Now that reality has set in, MOOC-related organizations like Udacity will struggle to uncover what actually works. It may turn out, however, that there are better technological solutions. One possibility is the Metaverse. The new medium of the Metaverse will collapse your own local space with a vast and immersive virtual reality, combining the benefits of online learning with those of real-life and hands-on classroom instruction. Another possible solution is self-paced learning led by an artificial intelligence serving as your own personal teacher. The AI teacher might read your emotions and track your progress to tailor an educational track just for you. How these technologies and others might combine into even more comprehensive solutions is already being explored.

One major obstacle remains: these technological solutions – alone or in conjunction with each other – might never become widely used, if people decide they do not want to go back to school. Aside from money, continuing education requires time and effort. For adults long after high school or college, these might be especially hard to come by. Would you be more likely to continue your education just because you could suddenly slip on a head-up display and body-tracking sensors to step into a virtual classroom, or you have your own artificial intelligence teacher? How would this technologically-mediated education compete against other enabled pastimes expected to be popular, such as virtual reality gaming? Even if the obstacles to continuing your education are removed, can you overcome your own inertia to make this lifestyle change?

What Thrun has been seeking through Udacity is not just widespread enrollment in online classes, but high completion rates and content retention. There might be fantastic emerging technological solutions that offer good education cheaply and widely to the world’s population, but there remains the very human problem of convincing people to devote their limited time and effort to the proposition of their continued education.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet living in Tucson, Arizona. His poetry has been published in Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey and Fairy Tale Review’s “Fairy-Tale Files“.