MOOC Providers – Udacity

Whenever MOOCs get mentioned in the media, the “Big Three” names always invoked are Coursera (reviewed on Monday), edX (which we explored yesterday) and Udacity, the third big player in this space which I’d like to take a look at today.

Like Coursera, Udacity was founded by players in the original Stanford experiment in massive online learning, with founder Sebastian Thrun spinning the company off just months after having taught his wildly successful Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course in October of 2011.

Keeping in mind that my analysis is informed by taking just a few courses offered by each MOOC vendor, I would say that if Coursera’s key strength is its ability to put powerful, integrated teaching tools into the hands of professors and institutions to “do their thing,” and the best part of edX has been the craftsmanship it builds into each individual course, Udacity’s biggest differentiator has been its readiness to recast the structure of learning for an online environment.

For while most of the courses I have been taking break lectures into 10-20 minute increments and include assessment and other exercises as separate components, Udacity courses consist of Lessons broken into very small units (some less than a  minute long), most of which end with a multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank question designed to confirm learning.

This kind of structure is actually a time-tested teaching technique used for years by Computer-Based Training (CBT) vendors (going back to when CBT was delivered on floppy disk) which breaks down classes into individual learning objectives, with each objective tied to a set of “learning objects” (such as video or animated instruction and assessment items) strung together to create a course.

This type of computer- (now Internet-) based instruction works best with skill-based subjects, which is why it seems  a nice fit with the Udacity statistics class I’m taking (the good one from San Jose State, vs. the one –taught by Thrun himself – which received this scathing pan).

Short video also worked well in Steve Blank’s How to Build a Startup course I completed earlier this year (a review of which appeared in this week’s Degree of Freedom News – which you can subscribe to over to the right), although assessment items seems more perfunctory for that class (which could be an indication that the Udacity formula works best for the type of technical/computer-science classes that have been the company’s focus to date).

Udacity also seems to have standardized its video work around the online whiteboard (although, again keep in mind that I’m basing this analysis on just having taken a couple of courses), so that while a concept is being explained, pens and hands flash across the screen drawing normal curves and writing formulas (in the case of my stats course) or drawing cartoons of company founders leaving the building to talk with potential customers (in the case of How to Build a Startup).

I’ll admit that viewing an instructor’s hands vs. their face for the bulk of a course took some getting used to.  But keep in mind that video for every course I’ve taken carried its own set of distractions (professors staring at computer screens when they should be talking to the camera, superfluous stock images inserted into lecture footage, beards appearing and disappearing several times during the same lecture).  So at least for the courses I’ve been taking, no one seems to have yet hit on a visual style that stays out of the way of the content being delivered.

And speaking of content, it’s still king regardless of how it is delivered.  And as noted above, the content related to at least one Udacity course got less than rave reviews, and one of the biggest questions hanging over the company at the moment is whether it can get enough content (i.e. courses) out the door.

For their course list has stayed pretty static at twenty-odd classes during a period when Udacity’s competitors seem to be adding new institution and new courses every month.  And, as noted above, Udacity’s catalog is still heavy on computer science and other technical subjects (which, among other things, limits how much I’ll be able to use them during the course of my project which will require access to an increasing number of courses in humanities and the social sciences– particularly in my chosen major of philosophy).

That said, the speed at which universities are frantically trying to get into the MOOC game coupled with the finite capacity of existing MOOC vendors to absorb them may leave Udacity in a strong position to pick up institutions eager to get into the game.

So it remains to be seen if Udacity is stuck in a rut or preparing for the next round of major expansion of what all of us can learn for free.

Next Up – iTunes U

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