The dream that new technologies might radically disrupt education is much older than Udacity, or even the Internet itself. As rail networks made the speedy delivery of letters a reality for many Americans in the late 19th century, correspondence classes started popping up in the United States. The widespread proliferation of home radio sets in the 1920s led such institutions as New York University and Harvard to launch so-called Colleges of the Air, which, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, prompted a 1924 journalist to contemplate a world in which the new medium would be "the chief arm of education" and suggest that "the child of the future [would be] stuffed with facts as he sits at home or even as he walks about the streets with his portable receiving-set in his pocket." Udacity wasn't even the first attempt to deliver an elite education via the Internet: In 2001, MIT launched the OpenCourseWare project to digitize notes, homework assignments, and, in some cases, full video lectures for all of the university's courses.
And yet, all of these efforts have been hampered by the same basic problem: Very few people seem to finish courses when they're not sitting in a lecture hall. Udacity employs state-of-the-art technology and sophisticated pedagogical strategies to keep their users engaged, peppering students with quizzes and gamifying their education with progress meters and badges. But a recent study found that only 7% of students in this type of class actually make it to the end. (This is even worse than for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix, which graduates 17% of its full-time online students, according to the Department of Education.) Although Thrun initially positioned his company as "free to the world and accessible everywhere," and aimed at "people in Africa, India, and China," the reality is that the vast majority of people who sign up for this type of class already have bachelor's degrees, according to Andrew Kelly, the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute. "The sort of simplistic suggestion that MOOCs are going to disrupt the entire education system is very premature," he says.