The MOOC Backlash — Udacity’s Pivot (HuffPo)

The MOOC Backlash — Udacity’s Pivot (HuffPo)

by Jonathan Haber

Wrapping up my response to the MOOC backlash (if only to allow me to return to my more comfortable role of MOOC curmudgeon), it’s time to look at the biggest story that has gotten MOOC critics all a-Twitter: the decision by Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, to “pivot” away from his original plan to shake higher education to its foundation. (A profile of Thrun in which he discussed the decision can be found here, and an archetypical associated backlash story can be found here.)

Given some of the bold predictions Thrun made during the early stages of MOOC hyper-zeal (statements even he later regretted), I can understand the desire to gloat when someone who predicted the imminent closing of all but 10 colleges and universities in the world was forced to scale back from revolutionizing higher education to the more mundane task of training corporate cogs.


While I take a backseat to no one in highlighting all of the challenges and issues surrounding massive open learning, my year of being immersed in MOOCs has taught me that they have the potential to do a lot of good, even if they won’t solve every educational problem on the planet. And while I’m planning to return to my usual perch of MOOC critic after the holiday, I will do so while keeping in mind some of the plusses I’ve discovered over the last 12 months, including:

  • MOOCs have raised the bar with regard to the quality of every aspect of online learning, making it that much harder for future course providers to get away with substandard, unimaginative work.

  • The culture of experimentation within the field means that creators of MOOCs are ready to admit to mistakes, learn from errors and improve what they offer (dare I say “pivot”), rather than just pretend problems and challenges don’t exist.

  • MOOCs have drawn thousands of people into studying subjects (including liberal arts subjects) long feared in peril, even as business and computer programming majors become a bigger and bigger percentage of the traditional undergraduate student body.

  • Finally, MOOCs are just plain cool, so please please try at least one (preferably more than one) before sneering at them or cheering for their demise.

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