Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

While it is well hidden, wrapped in a very careful press release, Phil’s sharp eye has caught the details in SJSU’s press release about the next phase in the Udacity pilot that suggest the partnership between the school and the company is winding down. When Carl Straumsheim of Inside Higher Ed asked an SJSU spokesperson point-blank whether Udacity would continue to be involved with the courses, the reply he got was “Good question for Udacity.”


The Schadenfreude surrounding Sebastian Thrun’s fall from grace has been intense ever since the Fast Company article quoted the man who the author labeled the “godfather of free online education” as saying that he realized he had a bad product, and noted that his company is “changing course” to focus on corporate training. Mike Caulfield captured the tone of the reaction in ed tech circles rather nicely when he wrote:

Thrun can’t build a bucket that doesn’t leak, so he’s going to sell sieves….Udacity dithered for a bit on whether it would be accountable for student outcomes. Failures at San José State put an end to that. The move now is to return to the original idea: high failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs, because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers. Thrun is moving to an area where he is unaccountable, because accountability is hard.

I imagine that it would be easy for somebody running or funding an ed tech startup to draw the wrong lessons from this sad story. Consider this blog post to be an open letter to my friends at ed tech startups with some advice about how to avoid the kind of disdain and ridicule that Thrun is receiving now.

Pride Goeth Before the Fall

In some ways, it’s hard to separate Thrun’s current problems from his biography. He’s the guy who invented the self-driving car. He’s been a research scientist at Google and a professor at Stanford. He’s a competitive cyclist. And now he is building a startup that will, he hopes, transform education. He is Silicon Valley’s own Buckaroo Banzai. None of which is something that Thrun is to be blamed for. The facts of his life are the facts of his life. But it all plays rather nicely with the story guys like Tom Friedman love to tell about how some technology genius is going to build the new gadget that will blow away all those stodgy old institutions that are holding back human potential and save the world. After all, Thrun invented the self-driving car! How hard could education be?

Thrun didn’t create these narratives, but neither did he discourage them. To the contrary, he did things like making himself the face of the California SB 520 bill by showing up as a featured speaker—and sometimes as the only featured speaker—whenever a legislator or the Governor staged an event about the bill. The unavoidable implication was that Udacity was expected somehow to “save” higher education  in the state of California. Thrun was apparently either oblivious to or comfortable with that message.

And then there were the things that he has said.

Make no mistake: Sebastian Thrun is not being mocked because he said that his company had “a lousy product.” He is being mocked for the things he said before he said that. Like telling a reporter from Information Week last August that Udacity “has found the magic formula.” (Was that before or after he realized that his product was lousy?) Or like telling a Wired reporter that he thinks that in 50 years, “there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.

It is this last comment that I want to talk about in particular, because it is particularly instructive.

A Lousy Product

It may sound so far like I am suggesting that Thrun’s mistakes were about marketing, but I am not. The problem I’m concerned with is product design in the deepest sense possible. I’m talking about how you conceive of the problem that your product is designed to solve.

Suppose somebody came to you and said, “I’ve solved it! I’ve solved the problem of data.” Or how about this: “In fifty years, there are only going to be ten apps in the iOS app store, and we have a shot at being one of them.” You would think that person is an idiot. If you want to tell yourself a story of the Silicon Valley hero riding in to save education from the hands of selfish and incompetent bureaucrats and union interests (to the cheering of the huddled masses yearning to be free), then it’s probably easy to convince yourself that the reason many educators scoffed at Thrun’s “ten universities” claim is that it threatened their livelihoods. And honestly, there was probably some of that. But mostly it was because the statement was nonsensical on its face.

Silicon Valley can’t disrupt education because, for the most part, education is not a product category. “Education” is the term we apply to a loosely defined and poorly differentiated set of public and private goods (where “goods” is meant in the broadest sense, and not just something you can put into your Amazon shopping cart). Consider the fact that John Adams included the right to an education in the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The shallow lesson to be learned from this is that education is something so integral to the idea of democracy that it never will and never should be treated exclusively as a product to be sold on the private markets. The deeper lesson is that the idea of education—its value, even its very definition—is inextricably tangled up in deeper cultural notions and values that will be impossible to tease out with A/B testing and other engineering tools. This is why education systems in different countries are so different from each other. “Oh yes,” you may reply, “Of course I’m aware that education in India and China are very different from how it is here.” But I’m not talking about India and China. I’m talking about Germany. I’m talking about Italy. I’m talking about the UK. All these countries have educational systems that are very substantially different from the U.S., and different from each other as well. These are often not differences that a product team can get around through “localization.” They are fundamental differences that require substantially different solutions. There is no “education.” There are only educations.

But maybe I’ve gotten a little too abstract and philosophical for a practical-minded engineer or entrepreneur. Let’s get real. I went to Rutgers, a large state university in New Jersey. If somebody asked me what attributes of the “product” that was my college education were the ones that made me think it was a good value, I would give them a list that looks something like this:

  • I got a scholarship, so it was practically free for me.
  • They had a really good philosophy program and a pretty good linguistics program, both of which were areas where I really learned to think.
  • I loved the diversity of the people who went there, which contrasted with the bucolic rural/suburban neighborhood I grew up in.
  • I found a handful of teachers and more than a handful of students who inspired me to be curious and think harder.
  • I was able to explore my musical side, which had no impact on my career (sadly) but a deep and lasting impact on my happiness.
  • It was close but not too close to home, and my sister went there.

Nowhere on that list is “get a degree.” This is not to say that a degree was unimportant, but it’s not something that I, as a relatively privileged and relatively well-educated 18-year-old thought about. If you asked me which pieces were the most valuable, how much I would pay for each, and how I would react to “unbundled” services that met one or more of these needs, I wouldn’t know what to say. Moreover, I’m pretty sure that the working-class captain of his high school wrestling team with whom I shared a dorm room my freshman year would make a list of reasons why he went to Rutgers that would bear little or no resemblance to mine. Despite the fact that a college education has some consumer characteristics—you can shop for it and you can buy it—it is not an easily definable product. One college—heck, one class—can serve radically different needs for different students. So what, exactly, would you be disrupting when you disrupt college? What is the product that could replace what college does?

This is a big reason why Udacity failed in their SJSU pilot. Into an already experimental cohort, they threw some inner-city high school students at the last minute. There are lots of reasons why this was an irresponsible and stupid thing to do, but I want to focus on one in particular. The underlying assumption here is that those students need basically the same thing that the college students need, but maybe with a little more of something. Tutoring, maybe. This mentality is exactly the opposite of the promises we’ve heard about how technology is going to “personalize” education. News flash: Inner-city high school students don’t just have more educational needs than students who have successfully matriculated to SJSU; they have different needs (and different goals and motivations). Why would we assume that the same course would work for them?

What’s weird is that this mentality is also the opposite of what has made Silicon Valley great in recent years. The real revolution in software over the last decade has been in product design and development techniques that give us much better ways to understand the real and specific needs of well-defined classes of users. There is a range of these methodologies, but they all build from the common bedrock conviction that you don’t understand your users’ needs when you start. As Clay Shirky is reported to have said, “The first prototype isn’t meant to show a solution. It’s to show that you don’t yet understand the problem.”

If you want to help improve education as an entrepreneur, then start with that nugget of wisdom. Start by assuming that you don’t yet understand the problem, and that educators and students know more about the problems that need solving than you do. Use your skills to help them illuminate and elucidate the problems that they are trying to solve, and then work on your solution—not to “education”, but to a specific educational problem for specific actual humans. This is not to say that you can’t have a big impact. Education is in desperate need of help to untangle the mess of needs, goals, approaches, and institutional structures so that we can do a better job of helping more people. There are big challenges. But note the plural. There is not one hard problem. This a complex of many intertwined and poorly defined hard problems. Improving education isn’t like designing a better way to order a taxi, or building a better smart phone, or even inventing a self-driving car. It’s harder than any of those, because it is far messier than any of those. This makes it an incredibly gratifying space to work in as long as you don’t do so out of a fantasy that you and your entrepreneur peers are the heroes who are going to “save” it, after which you will be greeted as liberators. That way lies madness. And failure.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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14 Responses to Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

  1. Laraine says:

    This post was spectacularly wonderful. It should be required reading for all of those interested–for whatever reason, altruistic and/or financial, in trying to find ways to make technology improve the quality of education. Perhaps even more importantly, it should be required reading for those instructors, and even some students, who mistakenly believe no one committed to exploring technology’s role in education has a clue about what it means to learn in depth and have one’s life profoundly enriched as a result, even if that enrichment can’t be easily assessed online or quantified as an outcome.

    I see this post as the preface to an altogether great and hugely necessary book–print and digital to please all interested parties–on the subject of technology in education.

  2. Fred M Beshears says:

    Hume once observed that you cannot get ought from is.

    If we cannot precisely define what we ought to be doing with a course (i.e. define what our objectives are for a course), then it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to agree on what it is that we should do to improve the course.

    If you want to improve education as a whole, then this problem becomes even worse.

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  6. Laraine, thanks for your kind words. I can’t promise you a book, but I can promise you a web TV series, coming soon to a computer or mobile device near you.

    Fred, I have no problem with saying things like, “One of our goals for Course W is to accomplish X for students like Y as measured by Z.” In fact, I am calling for more or that. My problem is when we start to say things like, “Our product accomplishes X for students like Y as measured by Z, so it can and should replace Course W (and Degree Program V, and University U).” Or worse, “Our product accomplishes X because big data, so you can all go home and start taking our MOOC on ‘Burger Flipping for Academics’ now.”

  7. Fred M Beshears says:


    My take on MOOCs is that they’re closer to online textbooks than full courses. However, unlike printed textbooks, online textbooks can be seen as more than just supplements to the traditional course. In particular, online textbooks can perform some functions that have traditionally been provided by the instructor. So, MOOCs could be used as a substitute for commercial textbooks by brick-and-mortar schools; and, if this was as far as it went, you wouldn’t see much (or any) resistance from teaching faculty.

    However, if MOOCs are used as a substitute for the lecture, then you can expect resistance from the teaching faculty. Teaching faculty don’t want to innovate themselves out of a job, and they certainly don’t want to let technocrats do this for them.

    In my opinion, this is an unfortunate but easy-to-understand position. Now, if teaching faculty had some way to know that they could hold onto their jobs, things might be different. So, if the objective of introducing the online textbook is to improve the quality of instruction, then teaching faculty might be more willing to let the MOOC/textbook do the lecturing. The university could breakup the large lecture into small study groups where students could be given problem sets, discussion questions and other activities provided by the MOOC/textbook. And, the teaching faculty could move from group to group interacting directly with the students.

    But, it may well be that those who pay for education want to use the MOOC/textbook to reduce the cost of instruction (but hold the quality constant). In this scenario, the lecturer might be repaced by lower paid teaching assistants. Or, as in the case of the Tutored Video Instruction model developed at Stanford back in the early seventies, some well qualified students could be given training to act as study group facilitators.

    Either way, my conjecture is that adding the social element of the small, face-to-face study group would go a long way toward addressing the low completion rate problem suffered by full online MOOCs. The sticking point is how to get the on campus teaching faculty to go along.

    I tried to implement something like this back at Berkeley in 1988. It was called the High Tech Small Study Group project. Your readers can find more on this (and my idea for funding the development of open textbooks) at:

    Two ways to reduce the cost of education.

    The faculty were not ready for this change back in 1988. But, now things might be different.

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  10. This is an eloquent reminder that we work in *universities* with a *universe* of different educational missions. If we’re research institutions that create new knowledge, we are also stewards of past knowledge. If we’re gateways to the middle class we’re also in the business of helping develop a democratic citizenry. If we cultivate the life of the mind we also cater to the interests of football players and wrestlers. So it does seem a little preposterous to say that in 50 years there will only be 10 universities and that one of them will be Thrun’s. Still, it’s no reason to be complacent (and to be clear your post doesn’t say we should be). Silicon Valley might not be able to disrupt all of higher education but they might be able to displace, eclipse or take over some of its missions. We should be attendant to that possibility even if it isn’t likely to represent a wholesale takeover of academe.

  11. I agree with you completely that universities need to think carefully about their missions. It is even possible that at least some schools try to be too many things for too many people, and that having them transfer some goals to other (maybe new) types of institutions could be a good thing—as long as we are thoughtful about our responsibilities, about cross-subsidization and other elements that make the system work as a whole, and so on. This post was an open letter to start-ups, but it certainly was not meant to signal that universities have nothing to worry about.

  12. Laraine says:

    I loved what I would call the Promo for the web TV series, and I’m a good test for the really bad, hard-to-engage viewer/user. Show me people talking, and in fifteen seconds my mind is out the window.

    But the mix of thoughtful, information-rich snippets of discussion and graphics was perfect. I was with the preview of the series to the end and did not once need to say to myself, “Stay focused, no matter how bored you are. You need to know this.”

    This is going to be great! Looking forward to more come January.

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