A recent newspaper article mentioned Udacity as another big source for free online classes. This was the first I’d heard about this service, so I had to check it out. Udacity, like Coursera, started at Stanford. (I don’t know what it is with universities and multiple online learning platforms, like how MIT has both OpenCourseWare and edX, but I’m just going to chalk it up to the engineer’s tendency to see something cool and then immediately think about how it would be better if only it were different.) Like the other free online education movements, this one is driven by the belief that great education should be more easily available to more people. It has an emphasis on interactive learning by doing, and connections to real-world problems.
Udacity categorizes its classes into business, computer science, physics, and math. Additionally, it sorts the classes into beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. There is a total of 22 different classes, with one 1 in business. But one big difference from the Coursera or edX model is that Udacity’s courses do not have a set start date or schedule for when assignments are due. Presumably, all study is entirely self-paced, unless students get together and agree on a group schedule to keep each other motivated. The FAQ describes Udacity’s discussion forum system, complete with both staff moderators and a crowd-source system for recognizing helpful content and reputable posters. Participants can award each other karma points; earning enough of these points unlocks moderator privileges.
Another difference seems to be slightly more focus on course completion certification and paths to earning credit. In fact, several of the courses are being pilot tested this semester with a credit-earning option, which requires taking the class on a set schedule, paying a course fee, and completing a proctored online or in-person final exam. Udacity is partnering with San Jose State University for the credit-earning option.
This all sounds amazing and cool – but alas, no anthropology or sociology courses! What does it mean that free online education services focus so heavily on science/engineering subjects? Some of you have suggested that computer science types are more likely to be early adopters and creators of online technologies, while liberal arts types may have more distrust towards digitization and teaching remotely. That hypothesis makes a lot of sense – computer science department colleagues are likely to congratulate/admire a CS professor for trying a scalable technology solution, but peer opinion may be against a literature professor who does the same thing. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s look at a more demand-driven model that uses market forces to determine the slate of offered courses.