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Udacity and Coursera are GOOD for professors

March 18, 2013

When Sebastian Thrun gave an interview about Udacity on NBC, he dodged a question.

Isn’t Udacity bad for professors?

The interviewer repeated it a few times, and each time Thrun gave the weakest answers of the interview.  This is unfortunate, because there is actually a really good answer.

The question comes from a misunderstanding of what professors do all day long.  Because teaching is the most public part of the job, many people assume that it is the most important or the most enjoyable.  And, for a select few professors (some of whom I was lucky to have in class), it is.  However, lots of professors get into the profession because they love research and discovering new things.  Others love nurturing a few bright students, or holding vibrant discussions.

Unfortunately,  professorship thus far has been a take-it-or-leave it package of lectures, grading, mentorship, study, and bureaucracy.  Ask a professor which part of their job they love most and they can tell you.  Ask which part they hate most, and they’ll also tell you.  It’s different for every professor.  Very often it aligns with what they’re good at and what their students and research funders benefit from most.  Still, they are forced to do those other parts of professorship because that’s what being a professor is.

Adam Smith would throw a fit.

Udacity allows for a division of labor, and that is good for everyone.

You love teaching?  Great, go work for Udacity and you can reach millions.  Hate teaching?  Great, you are now free to pursue your research uninhibited while your students complete Udacity courses far better than whatever lecture you would have prepared.

More learning from students.  More research by professors.  Everything is better.  So why would anyone oppose this?

The funding model.

Udacity is good for everyone except third-tier universities.

These are institutions whose business relies on people paying large amounts of money to sit in a room for a few hours then receive a piece of paper at the end.  This works because students think they have no other choice.  Now they are learning that they do.

Stanford has nothing to fear because the Stanford connections are valuable even in the absence of the classroom.  High-quality second-tier institutions have nothing to fear because the personal attention the students receive beats anything an online course could give.  However, many institutions will die, and that is okay, because they were the ones not worth saving.

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