Online Higher Education Retools

For those who believe that higher education should be personalized, inexpensive, accessible, and geared toward helping students acquire useful skills, utopia is on the horizon.

Online higher education won't achieve its full promise until Olivia Munn is teaching courses with titles such as "Optimizing Google for Mobile Web Performance." But at least the field is moving in the right direction.

While traditional colleges and universities have played a primary role in the development of massive open online courses (MOOCs), the online pedagogical innovation that has garnered the most media attention over the last few years, at least one company is showing that educators can have names like Google, Intuit, and Salesforce as well as Harvard and MIT.

That company is Udacity, a Silicon Valley start-up that was founded in 2011 by Sebastian Thrun, a moonlighting Google employee and former Stanford professor who pioneered the technology behind driverless cars.

In November, Fast Company reported that Udacity was "abandoning academic disciplines in favor of more vocational-focused learning." This was something of an overstatement-Udacity had never embraced purely academic learning enough to suggest that it was now somehow abandoning it. Reflecting Thrun's background, Udacity's first two courses were "Building a Search Engine" and "Programming a Robotic Car," both of which had more than a little vocational focus. And as early as October 2012, Udacity had announced its intention to partner with companies like Google and Autodesk on courses such as "HTML5 Game Development" and "Interactive Rendering."

This, it turns out, is a promising approach. As Fast Company explained, "The companies pay to produce the classes and pledge to accept the certificates awarded by Udacity for purposes of employment." And while MOOCs have traditionally been open to anyone who wants to take them, at no cost, Udacity is increasingly encouraging students to pay for its courses. While it still offers open access to all its courseware for free, it also now offers students a chance to "enroll" in a handful of classes. These students will get personalized coaching and detailed feedback on assignments and projects, plus a "verified certificate of accomplishment" upon their successful completion.

With an early registration discount of 30 percent, the price for "Introduction to Salesforce App Development," for example, is $105 per month. You complete courses at your own pace. A class might take you two weeks to finish, or it might take you two months or more. (If it's the former, you've still got to pay for a full month.)

Udacity is offering these new services to combat MOOCs' greatest perceived weakness: their low completion rates. In many cases, fewer than 10 percent of the people who register for a MOOC successfully complete it.

These changes were largely borne from a partnership the company pursued with San Jose State University (SJSU) in early 2013. Udacity offered online versions of three SJSU math classes. SJSU students could take these classes, for credit, for a substantially lower fee than they would have had to pay for SJSU's real-world versions of the classes (which the university also offered the same semester).

At the end of the semester, the Udacity students fared worse than the students who took the conventional courses. For the three classes, the pass rates for the former ranged from 23.8 percent to 50.5 percent, while the pass rates for the latter ranged from 45.5 percent to 76.3 percent.

This outcome delighted Old Education loyalists. "Sebastian Thrun has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that real higher education can't be automated," exclaimed the Colorado State historian Jonathan Rees at his blog More or Less Bunk. Rebecca Schuman, an education writer at Slate, dubbed Udacity's effort an "embarrassing failure."

But while the completion rates for these three MOOCs were lower than the completion rates of the on-campus classes, they were, in the greater landscape of MOOCdom-where, remember, completion rates tend to hover under 10 percent-fairly impressive. By past standards, Uda­city was doing something right.

What it was doing, essentially, was cribbing from traditional colleges and universities. For all their faults, these institutions are quite adept at getting students to pass their classes. But it's not their superior pedagogy that facilitates these positive outcomes. It's their superior incentives.

First, they charge a substantial amount of money. While high tuitions serve as a barrier to entry to many, those who can pay have an increasingly strong incentive, in the form of sunk costs, to get a return on their investment. Second, universities offer something of high value for those who complete their course of studies: a college degree that promises access to a lifetime of higher wages. Finally, they're extremely selective about whom they teach: the schools with the strongest reputations for academic excellence are also the schools that take the greatest pains to ensure that only the most motivated, talented, and intelligent students have access to their curriculums.

In the San Jose experiment, Uda­city emulated some of these tactics, charging a fee and offering credit. In return, it got better results. Now it's incorporating these methods into the fare it offers everyone.

Compared to current college tuition, the $140 that Udacity is charging for a month's worth of support while taking "Data Wrangling with MongoDB" is nothing. On the Web, anyone who forks over $140 for content of any kind pretty much qualifies as an unusually engaged user, so even modest user fees will likely boost a course's completion rates. (As Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, has pointed out, one reason MOOCs have such low completion rates is that these figures typically include anyone who interacts with a given course, including the thousands of people who register but never actually make it to the first lesson.)

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  • Heroic Mulatto||

    This is a great article and all, but to conflate getting a Microsoft IT cert. with the phrase "higher education" requires semantic flexibility akin to that young lady I once saw in a bar on Ko Samui.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Yes, it is insulting to computer-setter-uppers to compare them with social science majors.

  • Joe Clave||


  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Online math courses are still a bitch, and expensive as fuck.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    This outcome delighted Old Education loyalists. "Sebastian Thrun has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that real higher education can't be automated," exclaimed the Colorado State historian Jonathan Rees...

    But the payment processes can, which is my primary suspicion of the explosion of these online colleges, along with the "one course a month", and "one day, one night" diploma mills. More people are realizing what a sweet racket the student loan/grant industry is and now that it's entirely guaranteed by FedGov, they might as well start suckling at that sweet teat. The cult of credentialism won't interfere because, they love credentials and they require no investment of time or trust in the potential employee.

  • Joe Clave||

    Yes, student loan industry is a problem and a racket for some of these degree mills.

    But, that is part of the democratization of education. Companies will have to rely on consumer reporting and experience with 'graduates'. With transparency, it won't take long to figure out who is offering quality education and who is not.

    The problem with that is that some jobs offer automatic bumps in pay for higher certification, but don't care where you get it from, so educational hucksters will always be in business.

    I foresee more private accreditation boards will come into being. This will raise the cost, but you will be getting what you pay for.

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