Saturday, June 27, 2015

Pass the MOOCs -- Part 3 (Udacity)

Last update: Saturday 6/27/15
This note resumes the discussion that I began in Part 2 of some unexpected insights about career-oriented MOOCs offered by top-ranked universities that I have encountered in my quest for the new knowledge and skills that will enable me to reenter the job market in a different field. Much ado has been made in some academic circles about the low completion rates of MOOCs. Many enroll, but few successfully complete. Given my first insight -- that some top-ranked universities deliberately underestimate the prerequisite knowledge and the study time required to successfully complete their career-oriented MOOCs --  low completion rates are not surprising. So this note offers my conjectures as to why top-ranked universities deliberately mislead prospective students.

Noting that some academic MOOC providers underestimate their course requirements, I think it's instructive to consider Udacity, a MOOC provider that definitely does not engage in underestimations for its career-oriented programs. How do I know? From embarrassing personal experience. 
  • A couple of months ago when I was formulating the list of MOOCs that I would take, I thought of enrolling in Udacity's new "Data Analyst Nanodegree Program." Udacity's Website required prospective enrollees to answer a few questions that would determine whether they had the prerequisite knowledge. First, I miscalculated the answer to an easy question. Careless error. Then I miscalculated a p-value. Boom!!! A message appeared mid-screen that suggested that I take Udacity's basic statistics courses before I tried to enroll in the nanodegree program again. Good-by ... What??? No!!! You can't do this to me, not to MEEEEEEE!!!!!!
  • OK. Calm down. It's been decades since I calculated a p-value manually. Indeed, it's been decades since I engaged inferential statistics in any capacity other than as a reader of other people's reports. My skills were rusty ... Udacity was right. I wasn't ready. 

So why is Udacity so selective? Let's review some basic facts about Udacity, most of which are taken from its Wikipedia page:
  • Udacity is a for-profit company that was founded by Sebastian Thrun in 2012 with his own funds plus backing from venture capital firms Charles River Associates and Andreesen Horowitz
  • Thrun had developed the world's first MOOC (as the term is usually understood today) back in 2011 when he was a professor at Stanford University. His course enrolled 160,000 students.
  • At first Udacity developed university-style courses, just like Coursera and edX. However the well-publicized failure of courses developed for San Jose State University in 2013 caused Thrun to publicly state that Udacity had a "lousy product" ... Thereafter, Udacity pivoted to focus on career-oriented courses developed in partnerships with major corporations.
  • In 2014 Udacity and AT&T announced the first nanodegree program, a set of online courses that was designed to provide graduates with the knowledge and skills that AT&T was seeking in entry level job applicants.
  • As of June 2015, Udacity offered the following nanodegrees -- Front-End Web Developer (created with AT&T, Google, & GitHub), Android Developer (created with Google), iOS Developer (created with AT&T), Data Analyst (created with Facebook & mongoDB), Full Stack Developer (created with AT&T, Google, GitHub, & Amazon), and Introduction to Programming (no partner listed on Website).
  • Each nanodegree program is set of self-paced online courses that can be completed within 6 to 12 months, paced at a "minimum" of 10 hours of study per week. Students pay a subscription fee of $200 per month while enrolled, but Udacity refunds half of the tuition to students upon "graduation", i.e., upon successful completion of their nanodegree's required courses. Graduates receive verified nanodegree credentials. And Udacity helps its graduates to find jobs.
In other words, Udacity has partnered with major corporations to help them meet their recruitment targets, a particularly valuable service in fields wherein the required knowledge/skills mixes are in constant flux. Not stated on the Website is the size of the fees that its corporate partners pay to Udacity, if any, when they hire Udacity's graduates. Nor does it say whether Udacity collects a placement fee from its graduates when it finds employment for them.

The continued success of any business is never guaranteed no matter how sound its model appears to be; but barring some extraordinary mishap, I can't see why Udacity won't continue to succeed. My optimism is reinforced by the recent success of highly selective coding bootcamps that don't have Udacity's access to inside information about the changing job requirements of large corporate partners. 

In summary, Udacity began as a platform for college level online courses, but has evolved into a profit-driven company that enrolls qualified students in self-paced online programs that provide them with knowledge and skills that will enable them to be hired by Udacity's corporate partners (or comparable employers) when they graduate.

Back to Academe ... 
Udacity's pursuit of profits favors a highly selective enrollment process. But why should top-rated universities adopt selective enrollment processes for their MOOCS?  Unlike Udacity, most top-rated universities express considerable unease about proposals to measure the quality of any of their programs by the subsequent employability and by the subsequent salaries of their graduates. And few, if any, have declared that their MOOCs have become profit centers, so they are not running MOOCS to generate revenue

On the other hand, the best universities won't risk their reputations by offering MOOCs that are watered down versions of their regular courses. So they retain rigor in the course content of their MOOCs while maintaining an almost religious respect for the first "O" in "MOOC" that stands for "Open" -- as in "open to all who are interested". Indeed, they make their courses more "M" as in "Massive" by deliberately understating the prerequisite knowledge and hours of study required to complete their MOOCs successfully, thereby encouraging far more students to enroll.

Their MOOCs are still free, but if they charge a modest fee for providing verified certificates to students who pass their career-oriented MOOCs, they don't collect these fees until students have been in the courses long enough to know if they have a reasonable chance to complete the course requirements successfully. So fibs about prerequisites and required hours of study cause no harm, no foul.

New For-Profits ...
Nevertheless, I don't think this situation will last much longer. Lifelong learning has become a prerequisite for continued employment for everyone because the knowledge and skills required to maintain employment keep changing, in some fields at much faster paces than in others. Universities have been notoriously slow to change their curricula to meet changing market demands, nor can I foresee that this inertia will be substantially reduced in the foreseeable future.

What I do see is the rise of more profit-driven, career-oriented training companies like Udacity. The new for-profits won't be like the rapacious old for-profits that are currently being pushed like dinosaurs into the tar pits of bankruptcy by federal policy makers, pushed into oblivion because their high tuition forced students to take massive loans that they couldn't repay because they couldn't find jobs after they graduated (or dropped out). By contrast, the fortunes of the new for-profits will rise or fall depending on their proven capacity to enable their students to find better jobs. Therefore I see fewer universities continuing to offer career-oriented MOOCs; but those that do will have to meet the same market standards as the new for-profits.

Related notes on this blog:

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