What Should We Learn From Thrun’s ‘Pivot’ And Coursera’s New Wave Of Funding?

What Should We Learn From Thrun’s ‘Pivot’ And Coursera’s New Wave Of Funding?
Summary: What happens when the genius behind the crazily popular AI course decides to abandon ship, his crew fighting and fending for themselves? Some say that the world of MOOCs would never be the same again. Of course its none of our businesses to meddle into a person’s private decisions, till the time it doesn’t affect millions of people in the world.

The news is more than a month old and probably been talked about excessively already. Coursera turned 2 and what better way to celebrate than to receive $20 million more as Series B funding. Sebastian Thrun got the tag of ‘Godfather of Free Online Education’ and yet turned his back on his primary mission. Moocs are still around but have they lost their charm? Will higher-ed institutes follow in the footsteps of San Jose and say NO to hosting free, online courses?A lot has been happening to the world of higher education but Udacity seems to be in the limelight. Sebastian Thrun, a much celebrated educator-cum-scientist-cum-biker, decided he didn’t want anything to do with the educational MOOCs for the masses. And so he is set to revolutionize the corporate training arena. I am disappointed to see a ‘sagacious’ man be cowed down by numbers and statistics. I understand that for a CEO of a company, it is hard to work with a ‘lousy product’ but for an educator teaching the Statistics 101 course, shouldn’t the numbers be a challenge, a source of motivation?

Are The Present MOOC Numbers Really Scary?

I believe what Sebastian Thrun is missing here is a deeper perspective into numbers generated by the MOOCs. Having held a discussion with some other MOOC takers of Udacity, we collectively inferred that simply analyzing on the ‘HOW MANY’ (enrollments, drop outs, completions, et al), perhaps it would be much wiser to look into the WHY of the matter. Why do learners enroll for a MOOC in the first place? Why don’t they complete it, even though it is a matter of personal choice? Why do only a small amount of learners go ahead to take the complete course? After all, the links to the right epistemology lie in the psychology of the stakeholders.Also, I highly reject the notion of ‘sieving’ or thinning the crowd before admitting them to an ‘OPEN, online course’. That is a hypocritical notion that defies the very laws of openness and free education. Should there be a small fee for a course, so be it. At least there is clarity in the values. So again I will reiterate, we are missing the point here. There is no particular group of learners that is less or more deserving than the others. If we are to bring into practice such biased notions, MOOCs shall no longer remain a disruption.

So is it the end of MOOCs?

The curmudgeons who predicted the death of MOOCs may have a chance to celebrate but only momentarily. I mean Coursera is still getting the funds. [But it would be wrong to deem it the ‘last big MOOC standing’ on the basis of the cash inflow] So what does this say about the whole open education disruption that took the education industry by storm? Dampening of spirits or exhaustion of ideas or high levels of disappointment?

The grave-digging however will be further delayed for a few years at least. Berlin based, iversity.org, an answer to US based Coursera, seems like a promising gladiator-entry into the MOOC arena. With an interactive interface and no text-book reading, the iversity team has clearly put in a lot of time and effort into the making of the MOOC. I have started taking the Storytelling Mooc and it does run like a story. The movie-like videos are interactive and much thought has gone behind the content being shared on the platform. Although the multiple-choice questions are aimed at ensuring you see the whole video before you go further, the concept is ideal to experiment with. The assignments however are thought provoking. I would love to obtain a stat report about the 50,000 enrollments. I am hoping the iversity people will dig deeper and beyond the usual drop-out rate hue and cry.Another MOOC-provider is WizIQ’s virtual classroom platform. Although the numbers aren’t big but there is a lot of enthusiasm. The recent ELT Mooc festival for English teachers has been able to grab the attention of the ELT community. The course on Techniques of Listening and Pronunciation saw a lot of English language teachers all over the world, unite and share their innovative takes at English language teaching. From using Hip Hop to using Jokes and Pun and rap songs, these Edupreneurs are revolutionising the way English is taught in schools and online. The pre-class tasks were all done and delivered. The main attraction was LIVE interactive sessions with a celebrity band of teachers (JenniferESL, Rachel of Rachel’s English, Shelly Sanchez Terrell, Jason aka Fluency MC, Chuck Sandy, among others). The educator can come face to face with the learners and the live chat is always abuzz with excited chattering.

And the MOOC-mystery deepens

So is it the utility or the interest that weighs the probability of a person taking or breaking a MOOC? Or is it the question of technology and interface? Or is it the inevitability of the fact that there is less seriousness attached to anything universally FREE? If for instance an application for a new job were to depend on a MOOC certificate on my LinkedIn page, would I be motivated enough? Or would I flutter from MOOC to MOOC till I know enough to keep myself from losing my present employment?

A senior once asked me, “If I were to take away all traces of technology from your life, how would you acquire knowledge on a topic of your interest or utility?” The answer was simple. “Books”. Just like we did in the good old days. So what tempted the students to take up a MOOC instead of flocking to the nearest library? Perhaps the charm of technology or the feeling of being tech-savvy?

There lies a greater mystery to the MOOC saga than meets our eyes, and for that matter, the eyes of educators and higher education institutes all over the world. Perhaps Thrun’s competency is wrongly being displayed as a pursuit for perfection. For a man to give up on his baby on the basis of a common pool of numbers, is unimaginable. So is the funding of a platform that is for-profit and yet fails to enrapt learners. So while we swim in unchartered waters and take the archways into the unknown, we might as well MOOC ourselves crazy with the right kind of tools and knowledge as soon as possible, should we be faced with an extinction or even worse, an apocalypse.