Udacity Certificates – Another Pivot

Udacity sort of fell off the MOOC radar once they announced a change in plans to focus more on professional training than the total transformation of what it means to attend college.

Initially, this re-orientation was greeted as an admission by the company that got the current MOOC ball rolling that massive open courses would not be providing the kind of disruptive change promised when Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun, predicted a shakeout in higher ed that would only leave ten colleges standing.

During last year’s MOOC backlash, critics of the new technology fixated on Thrun’s original prediction and took a bit too much glee celebrating Udacity’s change of course. And while I’m as eager as anyone to enjoy a little bit of schadenfreude, such an intense focus on one (and only one) early statement of a pioneer just getting his “new new thing” of the ground blinded people to more important developments going on in the MOOC world, namely:

  • The increasingly important role major educational institutions (particularly Harvard and MIT via their edX investment) were playing in the direction of MOOC development that (1) created a counter-balance to the Silicon Valley culture driving the initial stage of the MOOC revolution; and (2) created a new dynamic where the most interesting discussions regarding the value of MOOCs were taking place within the academy.
  • The quick changes in business direction (referred to in the startup world as “pivoting”) that were leading all the major online learning providers to experiment with new business models, the next logical next step in any enterprise built on the principle of “eyeballs now, money later.”

When I talked about Udacity’s original pivot last year, I pointed out that what many outsiders saw as failure (such as Udacity’s on-again, off-again partnership with San Jose State College, or their offer of cheap college credit through Colorado State that drew no interest) should instead be seen as business model experiments playing out in public. And when such experiments demonstrate that your product doesn’t fit the need of those whom you’re targeting or the non-existence of paying customers, a responsible (and flexible) organization is required to change course (or pivot), rather than run their business into the ground in order to avoid admitting something’s wrong (a choice many of us who have worked in business will recognize).

Recent news from Thrun’s venture regards the company’s doing away with free Udacity Certificates and instead requiring students who want a document certifying their learning to pay for services such as identity verification, mentoring and evaluation which the company is presenting as a means of establishing higher value in the documentation obtained through completing a Udacity course.

Once again, it needs to be noted that people are still able to take Udacity courses for free. But of all the original MOOC vendors, Udacity is now the only one that does not offer a free option for documenting that learning.

This latest change in direction is playing out while revenue from Coursera’s Signature Track program (which gives students the chance to pay for a verified certificate as an alternative to a free one) grew to $4 million (up from $1 million at the end of last year). And a new Coursera’s Specialization program offers a way to enhance the value of Signature Track certificates still further by building them into a “meta credential” that demonstrates an even more thorough and systematic approach to study of a subject.

Meanwhile, institutions such as Harvard have leveraged their Extension School brand to allow students to obtain credentials that are already recognized in the marketplace as representing less than a Harvard degree, but more than a piece of paper that just says “Look I took an online courses!”

I promised to tie these changes in MOOClandia back to what I discussed earlier this week (and will continue to expand on in the newsletter later in the week), namely, the proliferation of a wide variety of educational products all traveling under the name “diploma.”

For if you think about it, someone who has completed a two-year associate’s degree program at University of Phoenix in business administration and someone who has worked through a four year undergraduate engineering program at Stanford both enter the marketplace holding diplomas. And while the market is able to discern the difference between educational experiences at these ends of the extreme, is a four-year online college program from Central Michigan University better or worse than a BA earned through a residential program at a commuter school like U Mass Boston?

It’s hard to tell unless you know the details about the rigor of each program and what students did to earn whatever degree they present. And, as twenty years working in the employment industry taught me, employers are not all that good at (or interested in) ferreting out these details when they evaluate a job candidate.

So in a world where numerous programs are scrambling to find ways to build value into the certificates they award (documents obtained at a price of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars), why shouldn’t MOOCs enter that scramble by trying to establish value in credentials that cost much less?

Back when the media was running daily stories of how free courses from Harvard, Wesleyan and some of the other “best colleges in the world” would upend education, the assumption was that courses alone made up a high percentage of the value of the college experience. And, as my Degree of Freedom project demonstrated, it is possible to put together enough free-learning courses to replicate something resembling the learning one could achieve by being enrolled in a residential college program.

But credentialing and learning are not the same thing. And just as the major MOOC providers have been experimenting wildly (and productively) with what constitutes a “course,” it should be considered a sign of health that they are now taking a closer look at what should represent the successful completion of one or more of those courses.

One Response to Udacity Certificates – Another Pivot

  1. Michael C May 4, 2014 at 12:34 am #

    The issue I’m having with Udacity more than anything else is that their courses just aren’t very good. I just completed Introduction to Data Science (the $150 paid certificate option) and I wasn’t super impressed.

    The course touches on a lot of topics without delving all that deeply (as expected in an introductory course) but some of the items it does delve into really need a deeper treatment.

    The choice of using Python and the Pandas library for everything, including assignments that felt more like make-work than anything useful. Its like they have this basic sort of Python development environment for students and they try to shoehorn everything into that.

    I took a introduction data science course at Coursera last year (https://www.coursera.org/course/datasci) which I thought was much better. The lectures were more in-depth and the homework assignments were actually interesting and challenging.

    If Udacity wants their certificates to be taken seriously by anyone, they should start by taking a good, hard look at their offerings to make sure that the student is getting value and that anyone in industry is going to buy into their value.

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