Udacity Working on ‘Magic Formula’ to Harness MOOC Power, CEO Says

Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun, who is optimistic about the future of online courses, said that his company is creating "an online version of education that really works and has great retention, great outcomes of education and really reaches people, not just the world's most motivated 1%," according to David F. Carr of Information Week.

Thrun said that massive open online course (MOOC) magic formula for sustainability and growth is emerging.

"The thing I'm insanely proud of right now is I think we've found the magic formula," he said in an interview last week. "Had you asked me three months ago, I wouldn't have said that. I'm not at the point where everything is great. There are a lot of things to be improved, a lot of mistakes we're making, but I see it coming together."

Thrun is a former Stanford University professor as well as the founder of the Google X Labs, which created the famed self-driving car and the Google Glass wearable computer. In 2011, Thrun co-founded Udacity to explore the possibilities of MOOCs.

The success Thrun claims to be on the verge of is actually outside the realm of MOOCs, if you define MOOC as a free online course with a huge enrollment. Instead, he is claiming an early victory in Udacity's partnership with San Jose State University (SJSU) to offer $150 courses for which students would get credit for a passing grade, just as if they had attended on campus. The credit-bearing classes are much smaller, and in the latest round of classes the enrolled students got more tutoring and help.

The SJSU partnership, which was also the source of Udacity's biggest public relations headache, was ended because of poor student pass rates in the spring semester, but Thrun disputes that blame should be placed on Udacity. "The results from the summer term, which was already in progress at the time of that announcement, are coming in, and Thrun says they show his company is on the right track."

Udacity is forging ahead and teaming up with the Georgia Institute of Technology to offer an affordable online master's degree in computer science. The program, partially underwritten by AT&T as a means of recruiting employees with IT skills, is scheduled to launch in January and will cost students just $6,600.

Udacity's approach is significantly different from Coursera and edX. "Rather than partnering with universities to distribute courses they produce, Udacity produces all its own courses and in most cases hires the instructors itself."

Udacity typically has eight people involved in creating a class, supported by a larger team "developing procedures and strategies and a lot of data-driven improvements," Thrun said. "If we were hosting a few hundred classes, we couldn't do it. I really want to find the magic formula first before scale. I'm really proud that I think we've found the formula. We just need time to really make it work and get the numbers up to where we want them to be. We're not there yet — I want to be very humble about that."

According to Thrun, the magic formula is not a fully automated online class featuring prerecorded videos and Web-based assessments. It's not a MOOC at all.

"To get better results, he said, "We changed the equation and put people on the ground." By adding mentors and a help line, and making phone calls to remind students to do their work, Udacity found it could get more students to do the work, finish the course and pass. Longer term, he has some ideas about using adaptive learning software to eliminate some of this labor, but for now it takes manpower.

09 3, 2013
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