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How Silicon Valley Could Save (or Delete) Education

Our college education system is busted. State universities are horribly underfunded. Education's expensive. Robots want your future job. But it’s cool, because Silicon Valley is on the case.
February 6, 2013, 5:40pm

Our college education system is busted. State universities are horribly underfunded and the elite destinations are just that, elite -- and even those top schools are struggling with rising costs and growing class sizes. For most Americans, the proposition of getting a four year degree now means hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt (and rising) for a “college premium” that barely exists and an increasingly worse chance at scoring a job. Meanwhile, the digital economy has made education more imperative: there may soon be a robot gunning for that job you want.


For your average young person, it’s a spectacularly terrible situation. If you don’t go to college, you’re maybe screwed. If you do, you’re an indentured servant and possibly still screwed. Hey, at least we have options. (Actually no, because you're going to major in computer science. Otherwise you’re screwed.)

But it’s cool because Silicon Valley is on the case. If Elon Musk can build a sexy electric car where GM and Ford stumbled and Google can provide ridiculously fast internet on the cheap while Comcast and Time Warner Cable sit on their hands, why can’t the tech mavens of Mountain View help the rest of us achieve a basic human right: learn stuff, hopefully on the cheap and ideally, well.

Leading the charge is Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor and robotics guru behind Google’s self-driving car. Thrun's a big deal. He was named one of the Brilliant 5 by Popular Science in 2005, the fifth most creative person in the business world by Fast Company in 2011 and was #4 on Foreign Policy magazine's Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012 and now he wants to make education his lasting legacy. Inspired in part by Bill Gates’ favorite educator Salman Khan, he believes his venture-backed startup Udacity has found the answer to our education woes. The MOOC, or Massively Online Open Course, which sounds more like some new World of Warcraft add-on than some sort of education panacea, is essentially an online classroom, easily accessible with courses designed by professors from prestigious universities like Princeton, Caltech and Duke. In Thrun's perfect world, free, quality education for all comes in the form of a MOOC. All you need is the right motivation, a computer and a little bit of bandwidth.

Sebastian Thrun, self-driving car guru, MOOC impresario

The excitement is palpable. In October, Udacity raised $15 million from valley legend Andreessen Horowitz in Series B funding. Last summer, the Atlantic called MOOCs the “single most important experiment in higher education.” Esteemed writer and NYU professor Clay Shirky believes this to be higher ed’s Napster moment (meaning old school universities could go the way of the music industry if they don't hop on this runaway train post haste). If mp3s reconfigured the way we listened to and shared music, then MOOCs will forever rewire the way we learn and teach. At the very least, they're better than Phoenix University.

This isn’t just some techno-utopian fantasy. For a fresh batch of college bound kids, it’s about to get stunningly real. Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown and San Jose State University President Mo Qayoumi announced an unprecedented pilot program: San Jose State will begin awarding college credits for special versions of certain Udacity MOOCs. The initial experiment will include a remedial algebra course, a college-level algebra course and introductory statistics, all for the low cost of only $150, way less than San Jose State’s regular tuition. “This is the single cheapest way in the country to earn college credit,” quipped Thrun. On the face of it, this could be a huge boon for the MOOC economy, for struggling colleges, and maybe, just maybe, for students.


As many buy into the hype, blood is drawn. At the University of Virginia (named "Best Value Public College of 2013" by Princeton Review), the Board of Visitors fired its president Teresa Sullivan after reading about MOOCs in the Wall Street Journal. Leaked emails revealed the school's governing body was concerned their leader wasn't taking the online education revolution seriously. According to Inside Higher Ed, Sullivan "had expressed skepticism about the idea that it was a quick fix to solving financial problems, and that she viewed distance education as having the potential to cost a lot of money without delivering financial gains."

The much beloved Sullivan was eventually reinstated (after fierce public backlash) but her qualms with MOOCs remain one of the central problems of the movement. Education isn’t a commodity. You can’t just buy it at the Apple Store. It’s a complex concept mastered and perfected over thousands of years in which rote learning represents only a single layer. There’s also intuitive understanding, self discovery and learning how to think -- ideas that are difficult if not impossible to relay over a one-way Google Hangout.

I was lucky enough to go to a decent undergraduate institution and while I’ll be the first to admit that my 300-person strong introductory economics lecture could easily be replaced by a virtual course, much of my “true” learning came from outside the classroom, simply being surrounded by like-minded people in an environment that fostered not only learning but also exploration and dialogue and provided the tools, resources and opportunities to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I can't imagine finding that aspect of education through YouTube any more than I can expect it from, say, infographics.

MOOC infographic via the Technology Enhanced Learning Blog

The idea of the MOOC as some sort of “education” savior might seem dangerously one-dimensional. Automation is great for scale and price but often comes at the cost of the human element. These human layers are ill-defined and sometimes impossible to compute, making them inordinate obstacles for the metric-based, incentives-oriented Valley. But they can also be the defining difference between a “good” and a “bad” education.

That's just me and maybe I’m just spoiled, entitled and totally backwards. But when real teachers and experienced educators are replaced by Udacity employees and tech gurus--or even the venerable if limited Sal Khan--it becomes a problem inherent to the proposition. Platforms like Coursera aren't yet well-oiled, Silicon Valley-like machines--but that's what they want to be. And what about us, who may value critical thinking and interactivity as part of a good education? As Maria Bustillos recently noted, education startups are, ironically, funded by venture capital, "which could not exist without the inventiveness that is the product of an education system which respects individual freedom rather than uniformity." (Bustillos also points at the invisible hand behind Sebastian Thrun's also unintentionally ironic website,, which, until recently, included a description of Udacity with an unintentionally ironic and unfortunate misspelling of audacious as "audatious.")


Mistakes aside, it's clear why MOOCs are such a draw for overextended schools. Where even the largest lecture hall may serve at best a few hundred students, MOOCs can instantaneously teach hundreds of thousands. That kind of capacity is a boon for a California school system that saw 470,000 students on waiting lists at community colleges in the fall of this year.

Whether or not those students are better served with MOOCs rather than waiting it out is a question the California pilot program hopes to answer. But if we go by the laughable irony of what went down last weekend -- when technical glitches, design flaws and poor execution derailed a Georgia Tech sponsored MOOC managed by rival startup Coursera -- they could be in for a bumpy ride. In that instance, a course designed to enlighten on the complexities of successfully operating a virtual classroom became a first hand case study of the opposite, and "Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application," a class of 40,000 students, was canceled after only one week.

A preview of "Logic and Discrete Mathematics," which Udacity canceled this summer before it started

While the old-school education world looks on with alternating indifference and concern, some teachers have been spilling red ink on the MOOC idea. This summer, after Udacity preemptively canceled a course called "Logic and Discrete Mathematics," the professor, Jonathan D. Farley of the University of Maine, described to the [Chronicle of Higher Education]( ) the challenge of designing a class for the format. He said he spent about three hours preparing for every hour he recorded in a video studio. “It’s a totally different way of teaching because you have to figure out how you can reach 100,000 people,” he said.

In a recent blog post, CUNY professor Daniel Collins concluded that Udacity's MOOC statistics offering was “amazingly, shockingly awful." Thrun responded the next day and many of the more glaring defects were quickly corrected. Another professor [chimed in]( ) with a mild defense of Udacity, noting the online class was meant only to be "a short elective liberal arts course," but wondered: "Can we find ways to preserve the flexibility, enthusiasm and spontaneity that is found in an inspiring general studies course in canned MOOC?"


In learning, iteration is important. As the MOOC program scales accordingly, how these programs will be shaped will have a real influence on how people learn, at least at the lower levels of higher education. Students and teachers and schools will need to learn how to adapt--and why not? Increasing automation and diminished human contact is the reality of today: a world where dexterous autonomous robots replace endless rows of Chinese factory workers and trading floor specialists on the New York Stock Exchange readily hand over the keys to Wall Street’s version of SkyNET. That teachers in classrooms may give way to teachers on YouTube, under the auspices of the leaders of the digital economy, feels inevitable. Maybe even necessary. But hey, at least it's cheap.



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Top image: Jim Belushi in Animal House