Education Makeovers: A Cautionary Tale of Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun and Jeb Bush

by Teri Yamada

I want to talk to you today about narratives of the education apocalypse, about eschatology and mythology and MOOCs and millennialism, and I do so not just as a keen observer of education technology but as someone trained as a folklorist. As much as being an ed-tech writer compels me to pay attention to the latest products and policies and venture capital investment, I am fascinated by the stories we tell about all of this. I am fascinated by what I see as some of the dominant end-times myths of the business world, of the tech industry. I am fascinated by how these myths — these sacred stories —  are deployed to talk about the end of the world —or at least  “the end of the university as we know it,” as Techcrunch puts it with the fervor of a true believer.
   Audrey Watters (7 Nov. 2013 from “The Education Apocalypse )

Those vested in the status quo lash out with political and personal attacks.  They hatch conspiracy theories about plots to destroy public education.  They do everything but confront the reality that the system they are defending has failed….If we don’t completely transform education, we are defaulting on the American Dream.  Jeb Bush (Education Reform Address to the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC], Aug. 09, 2013)

Those of us who have lived abroad, specifically in Asia, come to appreciate the American Dream enchantment that enraptures many of our friends there. (1) Although its dreamy edges are fraying, “America” in Asia is still imagined as a near magical realm, a place where dreams come true and anything is possible. Historically, America has provided some valuable cultural space for certain makeovers (and snake oil salesmen), as Mark Twain notes, and before him, Alexis de Toqueville.

But this cultural space, allowing for upward mobility, has dramatically changed. Now “Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe” (New York Times).  In 2013 we have a huge inequality gap that Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and professor of economics at Columbia University, warned against in “The Price of Inequality”

It is not uncontrollable technological and social change that has produced a two-tier society, Stiglitz argues, but the exercise of political power by moneyed interests over legislative and regulatory processes. “While there may be underlying economic forces at play,” he writes, “politics have shaped the market, and shaped it in ways that advantage the top at the expense of the rest.” …. In short, those with power use it to insulate themselves from competitive forces by winning favorable tax treatment, government–protected market share and other forms of what economists call “rent seeking” (New York Times).

The current political focus on a higher ed makeover keeps concerned academics busy defending their disciplines rather than using their considerable talent to solve policy problems. Demeaning higher ed has become a rhetorical device in a dysfunctional political environment, reinforcing the current structural economic problems. Blaming the academy for its inability to prepare students for many jobs that don’t exist deflects public attention from the real problem that must be addressed—economic power that influences news media and politics: “The importance of Stiglitz’s contribution (and that of other dissidents) to the public debate cannot be overestimated. The news media and the Congress are ill-equipped to address the role of economic power in shaping policy. Both institutions are, in fact, unaware of the extent to which they themselves are subject to the influence of money” (New York Times).

Enter the brilliant and charismatic Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, a useful distraction ushering in the Year of the MOOC (2012) makeover. From a free, open-source connectivist model developed by Canadians George Siemens and Phil Hill, Thrun and Coursera’s Daphne Koller, among others, made over the concept with a promise of commodification that attracted venture capital. Thrun and California Governor Jerry Brown connected to mutually embrace MOOCs as a transformative power in the makeover of California’s pubic higher education system, framed as resisting the solutions online education could offer.  This makeover was announced in a Los Angeles press conference —Re-Booting California Higher Education—framed as a discussion about 21st century skills on January 14, 2013 (edSurge) . The President of San Jose State University, Mohammad Qayoumi, announced  pilot programs with both Udacity and edX, neglecting to consult the faculty. (2)

George Siemens on “MOOCs: How did we get here?”

See also Jeffrey R. Young’s ebook,  Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption (2013)

MOOCs went viral. Just a handful of politicians, university presidents or university board members, who quickly embraced the concept of MOOCs mostly without research or debate, became media darlings. “By early 2013, nearly every major institution of higher learning–from the University of Colorado to the University of Copenhagen, Wesleyan to West Virginia University–will be offering a course through one of these platforms” (fastcompany). Paradoxically, a Chronicle of Higher Ed survey during the summer of 2013 indicates only 8% of faculty and 5% of college presidents believe that MOOCs’ will have a potential positive impact on future higher education in America. (3)

Thrun’s current re-makeover is attributed to the failed San Jose State pilot project. He states: “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product …. It was a painful moment” (UV Letters).  This new Udacity makeover transforms their MOOC courses into a more conventional online learning commodity. It will be, Thrun admits, “‘the biggest shift in the history of the company,’ a pivot that involves charging money for classes and abandoning academic disciplines in favor of more vocational-focused learning…. ‘We changed the equation and put people on the ground.’ By adding mentors and a help line, and making phone calls to remind students to do their work…” (UV Letters).

So how are we informed by this tale of transformation? What does it say about us and American culture: the rush to embrace the illusive  quick fix in Makeover Nation? Does our fixation on power, brilliance and wealth as ‘value’ cloud our judgement? Compare Thrun to Jeb Bush,  yet another education makeover expert. Claiming policy success as Florida’s governor due to the state’s improved K-12 test results, he ignores the fact that these test scores plummeted in 2009 (Reuters). No matter! With his current remake, he  eschews No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for Common Core and digital technology. Bush, with powerful political and corporate connections, promotes his lucrative Foundation for Excellence in Education—vouchers, cyber schools, and mandatory online classes for K-12—supported by ALEC and others. (3) There is profit in this frenzy to makeover higher ed in America.

Higher education is an enormous business in the United States–we spend approximately $400 billion annually on universities, a figure greater than the revenues of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter combined….(fastcompany)

We already have seen the greed, power, and nonchalance of the for-profit, on-line ed sector  in the past decade and  the disappointing inability of the federal government to reign in its excesses. And it is true that parents are rightfully frustrated by the high cost of tuition and genuinely fearful for their children’s future even with a B.A.  They want assurance their college investment will be worth it, that their children will get a job when they graduate. No one can blame them for this.

But the reality check is harsh. Making education cheaper or better will not create enough jobs or solve the economic inequality gap.  MOOCs won’t solve this problem either. We typically cannot guarantee a child will secure a job with a B.A. in any discipline without a network of connections and internships.  There are just not enough good jobs being generated in most economies, including Egypt, Italy, Spain, Tunisia, Japan and China.  Meanwhile MOOCs are perceived differently in Europe, Asia and the Middle East with their distinct educational infrastructures, regulations, and need for open source access. (3)

Where does this leave us in the U.S.? Social Philosopher Ulrich Beck predicts unprecedented global displacement of unemployed workers searching for jobs in our age of “liquid modernity,” an era of uncertainty that Anthony Eliott describes as an age of “corporate networking, short-term project work, organizational downsizing, self-help manuals, compulsive consumerism, cybersex, instant identity makeovers and therapy culture.” (4) A first step might be pausing to assess the complexity of our present moment with its threat of dismantling the very core of higher education— yet another makeover without a center. Some faculty are standing up to this:  Rutgers U. graduate school faculty who voted to block a Pearson partnership because it doesn’t save student’s money (insidehighered); the philosophy professors at San Jose State whose “Open letter to Professor Michael Sandel” about their Udacity concerns went viral (insidehighered)  Faculty must lead change having understood the complexity of this challenge, including broader influences that are driving the current federal preoccupation with performance metrics (see clip below on British connections). As Cathy Davidson, cofounder of Duke University’s HASTAC program advocates: university professors need to make a case for what they do in the classroom more articulately and persuasively to the public, legislators, donors and students “because if we don’t, it will be made for us. And we won’t like the result” (edSurge).

For some background on the British connection to the U.S. Dept of Education’s current infatuation with performance metrics see Prof, Mark Stiles’ short documentary,  “The Avalanche that Hasn’t Happened.”


1.This started from the enormous popularity of the soap opera Dallas in the 1980s and has  received assistance from the multiple, highly profitable Disneylands that sprouted in Japan and China.  For the global reach of Dallas, see also Ien Ang’s 1985 Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, Menthuen, London. p. 11 ISBN 978-0-416-41630-5.  The new 2012 version was broadcast globally including Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore.

2. President Qayoumi was everywhere in the media, including a write up as one of the ‘top ten’ tech innovators in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s publication “The Digital Campus” (May 3, 2013) and the more news about the failure of the Udacity pilot.

3. The blog “Global Higher Ed” has a set of excellent links on Thrun and also on MOOCs in other countries.  See “Mapping Coursera’s Global Footprint” on November 19 and “Briefly Noted (reactions to Sebastian Thrun’s Fast Company hagiography).

4. Anthony Elliot, “The New Individualist Perspective: Identity Transformations in the Aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.”  (Autum 2010).