Online educational startup Udacity, with whom I had a very positive experience while taking their CS 101 course, is taking things a bit further by partnering with Pearson. They’ll be using Pearson VUE testing centers worldwide to provide proctored final exams for some of their courses (presumably all of their courses will be included eventually), leading to an official credential and participation in a job placement service.
Before, students watched the videos and did homework assignments online and then took a final exam at the end of the semester. In the first offering of CS 101, the “grade” for the course (the kind of certificate you got from Udacity) depended on either an average of homework scores and the final exam or on the final exam alone. Most Udacity courses these days just use the final exam. But the exam is untimed and unproctored, and there’s absolutely nothing preventing academic dishonesty apart from the integrity of the student.
That’s not a great recipe for viable credentialing. For people like me, who want the knowledge but don’t really need the credentials, it’s enough, and I found their CS 101 course to be exactly the right level for what I needed to learn. But if you’re an employer, you’d want to have something a little more trustworthy, and so this is a logical move for Udacity. It’s also a significant step towards establishing themselves as more than just a web site with instructional videos.
The natural question for people like me is, what does this mean for traditional higher education? Personally, I’m not worried, because I teach at an institution that provides way more than just credentialing for job placement. That’s not to downplay the importance of credentialing or job placement — but that sort of thing is fundamentally different than a university education, or at least a university education that hasn’t forsaken its mission. Higher ed is a rich and complex ecosystem, and universities don’t really compete in the same space as providers like Udacity even with the sort of credentialing they’re describing. In fact there could be opportunities for useful partnerships between universities and online providers. Udacity certainly makes use of the university professoriate to power its content delivery.
On the other hand, Udacity’s move should be a warning to those institutions who have moved toward a credentialing + job placement model: Your space is being invaded by a viable competitor who can offer the same product for much less money.