Sebastian Thrun has had a word with himself

Sixteen months ago I wrote an intemperate post about Sebastian Thrun (‘Someone please have a word with Sebastian Thrun!‘), galvanised by his seemingly breathtaking ignorance of the research literature concerning online learning. Had he acquainted himself with such literature, or had a word with someone familiar with ODL and online learning (e.g. any of the names on the links list at the right), he could have saved himself a couple of years in coming to the position he now apparently holds. This position is at serious odds with some of the outlandish claims he and others previously made concerning MOOCs.

In his Google glasses, Sebastian looks rather like  an evil genius from a James Bond movie.

In his Google glasses, Sebastian resembles an evil genius from a James Bond movie.

I discovered this yesterday when reading an engaging article by Max Chafkin in Fast Company on Thrun’s about-face, ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, godfather of free online education, changes course‘. This is commendable – most so-called visionaries stick to their views unimpeded by logic or changing circumstances and outcomes. Chafkin reports that Thrun is quite the opposite of Steve Jobs in this respect, admirers commending his intellectual flexibility.

How has he changed? Well, there’s no need for me to repeat any of the crap that was written about MOOCs in recent years, culminating in 2012 being the ‘Year of the MOOC’. This is what he now admits, to quote from Chafkin’s article:

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial,” Professor Sebastian Thrun tells me when I visit his company, Udacity, in its Mountain View, California, headquarters this past October. “But the data was at odds with this idea.”

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.” Turns out he doesn’t even like the termĀ MOOC.

The crux of the problem is, unsurprisingly, the low completion rates for MOOCs. Read the article to see how this has changed Sebastian Thrun’s mind, and what he now sees as the new direction for Udacity and his own aspirations.

It’s a salutory tale that could so easily have been avoided.

Postscript: I sent the link to Martin Weller, just in case he’d missed it. I shouldn’t have bothered; of course he’d seen it, and written a lovely piece: ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before‘.

photo credit: jdlasica via photopin cc

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