The challenge posed by Udacity

I agree with the New Media writer Clay Shirky that the time is right for a massive disruption of higher education. In his blog, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” Shirky explores how higher ed content is–like music after what’s been dubbed the ‘Napster moment’–set to become ‘unbundled.’ Udacity’s power play is to ‘decouple’ the course from the brick and mortar university (thereby offloading costs associated with labor and capital) while also undercutting the shameless for-profit online education alternatives whose content is subpar and motivations shabby. The question is whether Udacity (or, more likely, its successors) can deliver excellent content at bargain basement prices to 100,000+ students living around the globe; the answer, I would venture, is yes.

Here, near the end of the article, is Shirkey’s conclusion:

That’s because the fight over MOOCs [an abbreviation for massive open online courses] is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, who delivers it. The most widely told story about college focuses obsessively on elite schools and answers a crazy mix of questions: How will we teach complex thinking and skills? How will we turn adolescents into well-rounded members of the middle class? Who will certify that education is taking place? How will we instill reverence for Virgil? Who will subsidize the professor’s work?

MOOCs simply ignore a lot of those questions. The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.

The Ivies will be unaffected (the chief reason being that it is selling an intangible asset: prestige), the R1 universities should be just fine provided the funding for engineering and science continues apace, but the no-name mediocre schools that make up most American students’ college experience will be unable to compete. In a few decades, we can expect these schools–like past manufacturing hubs–to pass out of existence.

Why might this model work well for the delivery of content, especially in IT? For starters, consider the costs of a four-year education. Usually, experts will speak about student loan debt, expected return on investment, and opportunity costs, but we should also consider the cost of staking oneself to a career, e.g., as an engineer. The time investment in becoming an engineer as well as the expense are important. Yet the further investment–let’s say: 10 years or more–in becoming a well-established engineer at a stable company must also be taken into consideration. If instead of this understanding of educational training, MOOCs could allow the student to achieve the proper competence in, say, engineering without the sorts of commitments and in a short enough period of time, then he may be more apt to let go of a life of engineering–and to do so more quickly and with a lighter heart–should he discover that this line of work is not for him.

I’m intrigued, then, by the possibility of allowing young persons to gain competencies in engineering or programming that can later be refashioned or repurposed for other possible ends. The point, it seems to me, is to unburden the young during a period of greater economic and ecological volatility, a period when resilience and adaptation will become more crucial attributes than an education in accounting.

A second reason for optimism is scalability. If MOOCs can teach 100,000 student subjects such as statistics and can do so in a competent fashion, then there is no use for the small scale statistics courses offered at colleges, community colleges, and universities. Furthermore, if MOOCs can offer such a course at a low fee, then they can also (thank God) outcompete the University of Phoenix’s and Kaplan Universities. Neither university is providing a valuable social service, and both are responsible for sidling their alumni (?) and dropouts with massive amounts of debt.

A third reason to hope for the success of MOOCs is that they are open to change. Whereas most universities are impervious to change (unresponsive to external pressures and internal demands), an MOOC can, at least in principle, do a better job at retooling courses and at offering up-to-date material in light of changing knowledge. No bureaucratic hurdles, no committee meetings, and hopefully greater goodwill.

Perhaps most encouraging of all is the imprimatur of companies like Google. Google has said that it would recognize these courses as legitimate and, in time and if all goes well, one would expect other large companies to follow suit. For too long, university transcripts have been the main way of demonstrating that one has done well in a set number of courses. But, apart from this and the useless, outmoded resume, there are other ways of gaining legitimacy in the eyes of would-be employers, other ways of opening up opportunities to talented, though less connected young persons.


Some have asked me why I care so much about MOOCs. I care not because I want to see the burgeoning of the tertiary (service) and quaternary (IT, finance, etc.) sectors of the economy and not because I think MOOCs are a good model of education but because I would like to see different models of education come to the forefront, toyed with, tried out. Posing a challenge to the higher ed consensus is a very good start. In the next couple of days, I want to argue that what we may be witnessing is the cracking open of novel possibilities for how education might look. I’m keen to philosophize anyway.

Coda: A Biographical Note

Many conversation partners who are now in or who have passed through my philosophy practice are in debt. I think about how–over the course of 10 or 20 years–debt can narrow an individual’s imagination and whittle away at his spirit.

4 thoughts on “The challenge posed by Udacity

  1. MOOCs, as characterized by Shirky (and reproduced by you) are settling around quantitative subjects: AI, statistics, etc.. Khan Academy, too, is mostly STEM disciplines and now some economics. These things are easy to teach in the relative social isolation of the digital realm. However, the discussion around MOOCs ought to take into account the relative importance of social learning.

    As an example, I recently had a discussion with a friend who has been tenured (as a humanities professor) at a serious research university for the last 25 years. He contends that MOOCs are totally appropriate for STEM-type learning, since it is mechanistic. Moreover, for the 50% of students who drop out of these programs on their way to graduation, the default majors become Psych and PoliSci – in his opinion, subjects that are utter bullshit on an undergraduate level. Thus the university is ill-served by this kind of migration, because as the system is presently constituted (and as you mention), there is no honor in dropping out of college entirely once you decide to drop a STEM major. One has to finish, in something…anything.

    Continuing his thesis, my friend contested that the social sciences are not much better off, although the need for networking for the benefit of those graduates’ future careers implies that a university setting is a little more appropriate. The only place that he sees a face-to-face 4-year education as being really instrumental is in the humanities, since that is the only way to teach people how to read, write and think critically, or at all. Hence he is happy to write a fat check to Sarah Lawrence every year to ensure that his daughter gets the Oxbridge-don-tutorial treatment.

    I thought this was interesting and compelling, and mercifully ignores the vagaries that college is supposed “build character” or what not, across the board.

    In general, the last few decades of higher education are the anomaly. Until the 1970s, community colleges served the segment that MOOCs are now looking to reclaim – vocational training that would be recognized by corporations. Shirky is right to say Harvard should never be taken as an example; nor has it ever *been* an example. Which is to say, why should everyone go to college? (See an older post I wrote on charter schools, and esp the citation of Brint and Karabel’s work on community colleges,

    For example, Peter Thiel had his notorious moment when he offered a bunch of incoming Stanford students entrepreneurial fellowships in lieu of their matriculation at that school (and, ironically, his own alma mater). But Thiel is a libertarian, and libertarians are by definition lone wolves. In contrast, one of the things I learned taking classes at Columbia Business School is the importance of group work – something I never did at Swarthmore. This kind of social learning cannot really happen within a MOOC context: you can learn how model a ball rolling down an incline on your own, but the case study method is intrinsically social. And I wonder, Andrew, what would an *effective* MOOC look like for philosophy? Is it even conceivable?

    1. Thanks for this lengthy, thoughtful reply.

      First off, I agree with you that the limitation of Udacity is that it can only offer courses in the quantitative. For me, this is the interesting (buried) philosophical point: Udacity et al. are ‘poaching’ students, thereby doing the necessary ‘intellectual brush clearing’ for the rest of us. (I don’t have much time for libertarianism, but I think Udacity is doing some important lifting.) Once these kinds of courses in the quantitative can be ‘decoupled’ from the university, then we’re bound to ask, once again, what the university is *for*.

      Second, I quite agree with you that the university is not in the business of self-cultivation. Self-cultivation, I would venture, is most viable within an institution that most closely resembles the ancient philosophical schools. The Neoplatonist Plotinus sought to found a city Platonopolis but (his pupil Porphyry tells us) the courtiers at Rome put the kibosh on that idea.

      The focus of my attention over the last 2 yrs. or so has been an attempt to create a ‘community of inquirers’, the goal of which is slow, meditative, ongoing self-cultivation. The idea came to me as I was reviewing Benedict’s Dharma during the summer of 2011.

      Third, your friend says that some liberal arts (I think you’d probably put Reed College, Swarthmore, etc. in there with Sarah Lawrence) still have value because they teach individuals critical thinking. I’ve rarely found this most recent claim–that the point and purpose of a humanities education is to teach the student critical thinking–defensible. To begin with, it’s not clear what is or what counts as critical thinking. Additionally, this formalism–it’s not about the acquisition of substantive knowledge but about some ‘mode’ or ‘form’ of thinking apart from object domains–strikes me as the basis for being, so to say, a symbolic worker in service or IT. I’m not sure that we can know how to do X without also knowing a good deal about the nature and properties of X. I found this unwarranted assumption over and over again–that we can study process and method without also grasping substance and context–as I was teaching at Kaos Pilots this past August. So, if these schools are doing something important (and I think they are), it’s not the teaching of critical thinking. They’ll be around for a while but for other reasons.

      Fourth, regarding philosophy and MOOCs: I don’t think it’s possible if philosophy is a way of life (a mode of being whose aim is wisdom) and not a theoretical discourse (doctrines, tools, approaches, methods, concepts, etc.). I know that the writer Jules Evans, in London, is working on amassing a global list of philosophy clubs. I also know that one former conversation partner–a brilliant hacker and mathematician–wanted to create a platform in which people could learn about philosophical ideas. But, for my part, this is not *doing* philosophy; it’s learning *about* philosophy or talking *about* big ideas. That has value, surely, but not philosophical value. Socrates showed us that what mattered most was ‘putting ourselves to the question.’

      Fifth and finally, your point about social learning is apropos. It’s also–so far as I’m aware–one fundamental reason why education of this kind doesn’t and can’t possibly scale. Three cheers for that and a few more for the place-based and embodied.

      1. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply to my admittedly lengthy post, Andrew. I should also note this interesting argument, made from a strictly economic point of view, that higher education is an unsustainable, debt-fueled enterprise.

        An important lynchpin of the author’s argument, however, is not economic at all, but based in systems thinking:

        “…complex systems based on diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. This can be a conscious process or it can be a default process, where the system becomes increasingly fragile and then suddenly undergoes a phase-shift that is widely viewed as “impossible,” i.e. the system freezes up or collapses.”

        One could clearly see that Udacity and the broader MOOC movement is exactly this kind of response.

  2. You write, “One could clearly see that Udacity and the broader MOOC movement is exactly this kind of response.” I think that’s just right. And so what I’m claiming is that this sort of thing is a boon, ‘cracking open’ other possibilities for how education might look, possibilities hitherto under- or unconsidered–for some, proper training and credentialization by other means; for you, social learning; for me and mine, the project of self-cultivation.

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