Academics should not be too smug about Udacity’s failure

I’ve been following the recent commentary around Sebastian Thrun’s revalations that maybe Udacity didn’t deliver the goods. I for one grudgingly admire Silicon Valley’s vaguely arrogant but persistant belief that “they” (the tech Good and Great) can transform and re-imagine every part of our lives, including education. It also makes me happy that this is getting a fair amount of attention because it least it means that education is perhaps important enough to think about in the context of innovation. Overall, it is an under-innovated area.

But there is altogether too much smugness around Thurn’s self-assessment and we possibly shouldn’t make it out to be anything more than a good entrepreneur’s periodic critical review of his product. Moreover, there is a pretty highly positive spin on all of this from a stakeholder engagement vantage – sometimes saying you’re “wrong” is powerful. Especially to Academics. Thurn knows this and has capitalized on it well.

The plain reality is that many universities and colleges are close to having – or are already having – extinction events. The fact is that many of our higher education institutions are struggling, are insufficiently differentiated and poor quality. In parallel, governments are not taking a forward view on growing the investment in education – indeed funding is, in general, being cut. Let’s face it, there is a lot of budgetary competition from healthcare, from immigration & defense and measures to keep our economies propped up. Education – unfortunately – seldom fares well in times such as these. This is a pity because it’s probably one of the most important things to really ensure our prosperity in the longer-term.

My prediction is that in the future, we’ll abandon the “classic” idea of an undergraduate degree. We have already lost vocational training and “associates” type programs that once upon a time enabled people to get trained for specific employement roles and make a decent living. Fact is, the most important employee attributes are critical reasoning, problem solving, team skills and communication. A 3 or 4 year undergraduate degree isn’t required to teach these things – arguably most undergraduate degrees don’t tech these things. We need to know how to communicate, research and understand concepts – we don’t need to store facts or manually crunch complex numbers anymore.

Therefore open universities, MOOCs and various online platforms are almost certainly the future of education. The whole proposition and opportunity cost of tertiary education doesn’t fit with our societal needs anymore. Youth, in particular, need to be able to earn a living while obtaining those vital skills but the same also applies to those who need to be re-skilled mid-career. The cost of education needs to be recoverable, commensurate with the benefits that it imparts to employment – and self-sustainable. Yes, there will always people (myself included) who love to learn for the sake of learning, and will pay a premium to do so. But this should not be the mission of education, it should be the aspiration of educators – that the quality of their offerings are such that we are compelled to come back, breathless, for more.

Alas, this is not typically the case. Despite over a decade of university and several degrees, I can count on one hand the number of lecturers that were worth really listening to. Education is already more of a commodity than we probably realize.

Actually, Udacity is spot on as a concept. The initial product construction may not be right, but academics should certainly not get cocky. In fact, universities would do well to start asking the question – how do we transition to the product, operating and cultural model of life-long learning? How do we transition to a world where instead of simply monetizing a student for 3 or 4 years, that we become a partner to those students – and their families – for life? When this question is critically considered, universities will finally reinvent themselves in an exciting way and likely repair – or even augment – their balance sheets in the process.

In this light, Udacity doesn’t seem to be all that … well… Udacious, does it?