Why people thought that the massive open online course (MOOC) providers would disrupt U.S. higher education by themselves by simply offering traditional university courses online for free has never made much sense. Yet judging from many of the pieces that have been published since Udacity announced its alleged “pivot” to focus on providing learning opportunities that integrate tightly with employer needs, that’s what many people thought.

Some of the confusion seems to have stemmed from a misunderstanding of what much of higher education does and is incentivized to do (hint: research often trumps the teaching and learning part of the equation) and how higher education imparts value for students—not primarily through learning in many cases, but in fact through the sorting certain institutions do, the market signal that a degree sends, and the network—or access to social capital—that institutions provide. Indeed, the formal classes provided at most institutions actually amount to a set of poorly constructed learning experiences because most faculty members do not receive training in how to create good learning experiences nor are they incentivized to spend their time on teaching and learning.

Some of the confusion also seems to have emerged from a lack of awareness of the problems facing higher education as well as a misunderstanding of the notion of “disruption,” which sadly relegates an elegant and predictive theory to buzzword status.

But the real disruption in U.S. higher education was never going to come from slapping traditional courses online for free. That is mostly glorified edutainment—not a bad thing for humanity by any means and potentially a useful upgrade over a traditional textbook, but not disruptive to the higher education sector writ large in and of itself. The real disruption in higher education was always going to come from a new system that looks quite different from the current one, begins by serving nonconsumers of traditional higher education, and integrates with employer needs to help students make progress in their lives because of an understanding that employers are ultimately—like it or not—the end customers for higher education because they ultimately finance much of the system for students.

As a result, Udacity’s recent announcement, which didn’t only focus on doubling down on the link with employers, but also a change in its “course” experience as well as the ability for students to pay to have an experience beyond the classic definition of MOOC that is a more robust vision of online learning with human support and learning freed from the limits of time and place, makes Udacity not less audacious and disruptive, but even more so.

The reason is that Udacity is in essence now its own university that is armed with a coherent business model, does not need traditional accreditation because of its relationships with and commitment from substantial employers that send a far stronger signal to students than does traditional accreditation, and a value proposition seeking to solve a real problem—helping current and would-be employees level up for employers.

This is a big and important problem that needs solving. During the last several years of high unemployment with millions of people looking for jobs, there has been an apparent paradox: employers reporting consistently that they have millions of jobs open for which they cannot find qualified people. Even more challenging, with many fields evolving continually and the technical demands of current jobs rising, employers need better ways for their millions of existing employees to access on-demand education that allows them to keep up. And those employers struggle to provide that training or make that investment because of the coinciding reality that employees stay at the same job for far less time than they ever have.

Traditional higher education has largely not met this demand, which, along with the breaking business model of higher education and the emergence of new online disruptive entrants, puts many institutions at risk. Udacity, along with other emerging online, competency-based programs, represents a part of the disruptive ecosystem emerging to try and meet that demand.

All of this makes the cheerleading from some corners of traditional higher education at Udacity’s walk away from working with most traditional institutions of higher education not a sign that Udacity won’t disrupt higher education, but an indictment of traditional higher education. In essence the cheerleading is saying: “See, you can’t work with us! See, you can’t help us disrupt ourselves!” That many colleges and universities won’t follow the lead of Southern New Hampshire or Northern Arizona and introduce disruptions themselves perhaps isn’t surprising given that organizations in all sectors struggle to disrupt themselves, but the professors cheerleading Udacity abandoning an earnest attempt to help are making a mistake.

Don’t call it a pivot

I sat down with Sebastian Thrun over breakfast in Palo Alto last week to test my thinking and interview him. One of the first questions I asked was if he thought that the media and Silicon Valley were right in calling his move a pivot because from my angle, in distinction from the other MOOC providers, I had thought that Udacity had been heading in this direction for quite some time based on the subjects it offered from its early days; its partnerships with Georgia Tech, AT&T, and other employers; and some of its public pronouncements that seemed increasingly grounded in how higher education and learning works.

Thrun agreed quickly. Udacity’s latest move is more a clarification and the result of the natural improvements a disruptive innovation has to make to solve increasingly harder problems. By providing increasingly sophisticated types of support, realizing that video is not king and there must be different ways for students to learn content in the context of solving real problems and partaking in real projects, increasing attention to employers, utilizing in-house instructional designers, leveraging its data to improve courses in near real-time, and understanding that the raw numbers of students enrolling shouldn’t be the sign of success, Udacity is maturing. A future step in my opinion should include leveraging its online medium to personalize increasingly for different learning needs to bolster engagement and learning.

Whether the outside world—from Silicon Valley, where raw growth is too often celebrated over the creation of a sustainable solution and profitability, to traditional universities and the popular press—understands the importance of this remains a question. That doesn’t make Udacity any less audacious though. After my breakfast with Thrun, I believe that it may be far more so than ever before.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.