Education technology meets its limits

This week has been a good one for those who like to talk about the limits of technology. Over in the U.K., a prankster managed to fool Trip Advisor into naming his shed the No. 1 ranked restaurant in London. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a city struggling to manage several wind-fueled wildfires, the L.A.P.D. has asked drivers to refrain from using navigation apps because they’re steering drivers onto open routes that may, in fact, be on fire.

In the world of higher education, technology has always had the potential to upend the academic enterprise. In the late 1990s, as I began working in higher education, The New York Times mused about the transformative potential of online education: “Just by doing what he does every day, a teacher potentially could grow rich instructing a class consisting of a million students… ‘Faculty are dreaming of returns that are probably multiples of their lifetime net worth,’ said Kim Clark, dean of the Harvard Business School.” Click here for more technology news.

As anyone who has taken an online course will tell you, none of this came to pass. Nearly 20 years ago a company called UNext — founded by disgraced junk bond king Michael Milken — spent $180 million to build million-dollar simulation-based business courses with universities like Columbia, Stanford and Chicago, only to disappear several years later.

No one has really tried to do this since. Why bother when more than 3 million students are enrolled in online degree programs that are largely text-based, translated from traditional onground college courses in such a literal manner that it’s almost robotic: read material, participate in discussion, submit weekly assignment. And the faculty who deliver these courses are about as far from rich and famous as you can get.

About five years ago, two Silicon Valley companies — Coursera and Udacity — made new waves with big-name tech founders, mountains of venture capital and a goal of revolutionizing learning. Their model was Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — free self-paced courses, open to everyone.

When it turned out that few learners completed the MOOCs, and that it was difficult to build a viable business model on a foundation of free anything, both companies pivoted to tuition-based novel credentials: Udacity nanodegrees with curriculum from brand-name companies like Google and Apple; Coursera specializations with curriculum from brand-name universities like Yale and Stanford, but with additional content from some of the same brand-name companies e.g. Google, Splunk, Yelp, Qualcomm.

One of the challenges facing online providers is the question of efficacy. It turned out that the online education revolution wasn’t in quality or outcomes, but rather access — allowing millions of Americans to pursue degrees on their own time. Completion rates remain low and prominent researchers have questioned the return on investment of online programs.

Concerns about quality may explain why none of the major employers associated with Coursera and Udacity have committed to hire or even interview graduates of these novel online programs. No one seemed surprised at VentureBeat’s report from mid-2017 that of the 10,000 nanodegree graduates, “more than 1,000 participants have found jobs” — a ~10 percent placement rate that should spell the demise of any last-mile program.

As a result, Udacity has resorted to a series of money-back guarantees for graduates who don’t find jobs. But of course, money-back guarantees don’t address the real guarantee students are seeking: a job. Udacity may give you back your money, but who’s going to give you back your time?

The lesson Udacity, Coursera and others are learning is that developing skills-based online courses and credentials is the easy part. The hard part is getting employers to pay attention.

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