Udacity Comes to the University of Alberta — Maybe

Guest post by Professor Julie Rak, English & Film Studies

Readers of Arts Squared may recall the post of 24 September, “You Too Can Be a Rock Star.” This post was about a presentation by Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, whose website you can view at http://ww.udacity.com. Udacity is a for-profit company which offers online courses for free. Thrun believes that this model will erase student debt world-wide and will transform the idea of the university as we have come to know it.

According to the edition of Rhumblines, the newsletter for AASUA (Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta), published yesterday, the University has just signed a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with Udacity, but without input from AASUA. It is unclear what the terms of the MOU are, since those who teach and administrate courses for the University do not appear to be privy to the decision-making which led to the MOU.

But I can speculate. I think that the University of Alberta is going to literally buy into Thrun’s vision, and make it possible for its students to take UDacity courses like “Introduction to Statistics” or “Artificial Intelligence” and have them count towards degrees in disciplines like Mathematics or Computer Science. These courses are “free,” although I doubt that student fees will be reduced. Given that Computer Science is in serious financial trouble at the University of Alberta and has been forced to lay off staff, it may be that Udacity represents an attempt to outsource the teaching of certain courses as yet another cost-cutting attempt. I also wonder if the University has agreed to provide more courses (for free) to Udacity. So perhaps in the future, my colleagues in Arts and I will be “asked” to become performers for Udacity, free of charge.

It is not clear at this time what the educational value of online lecturing is. It may not be desirable to have everyone learn the same thing in the same way, especially when other learning modes (such as group discussion) are not used. But I guess it’s cheaper (and more glamorous) to present lectures as TED-Talks, rather than discuss how much real education can cost. The Udacity presentation was short and relatively free of details about how a MOOC could be run for virtually nothing, and what that might mean for professors and lecturers on this campus. There should be a public debate about what MOOCs are on this campus. The people who actually teach and learn here should be helping to make decisions about this kind of learning, and whether our institution should welcome it with open arms.

Julie Rak, Professor, English & Film Studies


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