Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, one of the most high-profile private sector attempts to “disrupt” higher education discovered inequality this week. Thrun has spent the last three years dangling the shiny bauble of his elite academic pedigree and messianic vision of the future of higher education before investors and politicos. He promised nothing short of radically transforming higher education for the future by delivering taped classroom lessons of elite professors through massive open online courses.So what went wrong?
After low performance rates, low student satisfaction and faculty revolt, Thrun announced this week that he has given up on MOOCs as a vision for higher education disruption. The “godfather of free online education” says that the racially, economically diverse students at SJSU,“were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives…[for them] this medium is not a good fit.” It seems disruption is hard when poor people insist on existing.
Thrun has the right to fail. That’s just business. But he shouldn’t have the right to fail students like those at San Jose State and the public universities that serve them for the sake of doing business.
Thrun says it wasn’t a failure. It was a lesson. But for the students who invested time and tuition in an experiment foisted on them by the of stewards public highered trusts, failure is a lesson they didn’t need. Students like those at SJSU tend to know quite a bit about failure — institutional, social, and political. They did not need to learn again what Thrun, a smart guy from Stanford and Google, could have learned from a book.