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The story became legend almost immediately: In 2011, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, decided to teach the course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online, and make it available for free to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. 160,000 students enrolled and 20,000 completed the course. Within weeks of the conclusion of his class, Thrun resigned his tenure-track position and founded Udacity, a for-profit provider of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, with substantial investment from the VC firm Charles River Ventures. Thrun’s stated objective was to have 500,000 students in his first Udacity class.
There followed an immediate flurry of announcements of new startups offering free access to MOOCs. Thrun’s Stanford colleagues Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng launched their own startup, Coursera, announcing that they would offer fourteen classes beginning in February and March 2012. Professors from Stanford, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of California at Berkeley would teach the courses. Not to be outdone, MIT launched MITx, built upon its popular Open Courseware system. That effort quickly blossomed into edX, a non-profit partnership between MIT and Harvard, with each school contributing a combined $60 million to build what Harvard’s announcement billed as “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.”
This spike in startups prompted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to declare it “a college education revolution.” The Wall Street Journal similarly declared that the “nation, and the world, are in the early stages of a historic transformation in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized.”
And with that—in a matter of a few months—MOOCs became the topic of the year in higher education.
The press coverage was not lost on college and university presidents and trustees around the country. Institutions faced increasing pressure to board the MOOC bandwagon with little regard for the actual value of MOOCs. Most infamously, The University of Virginia Board of Visitors (temporarily) fired its president for adhering to a thoughtful program of “incremental, marginal change,” in the regents’ words, rather than participating in the coming MOOC “transformation…legitimized by some of the elite institutions” in the nation. (The president was reinstated after a highly publicized, campus-wide protest by faculty and students.)
Despite rumblings about the lack of a sound business plan for MOOCS, their massive dropout rates, and the lack of college credit for participation, the proclamations kept piling up.