How Udacity Scammed Me

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Udacity website screengrab.

I’ve been on both sides of the classroom when it comes to e-learning. I watched as KhanAcademy went from humble YouTube channel to being worthy of Bill Gates’ endorsement; I created similar content via TutorTom10 in my undergraduate years, now seen by tens of thousands of people; I worked with education innovators at world-leading universities in various e-learning roles and as a consultant; I’ve been involved in delivering and designing curricula in traditional educational settings; and I’ve contributed to institutional education policy, including one that was in the midst of moving into MOOCs (massively open online courses). Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve never met anyone particularly greedy or in it for the wrong motives. Sure, at times the hype which results from the ‘e-‘ prefix isn’t always realistic, but at least those involved are relatively pure of heart.

However, pure motives and (frankly) any semblance of educational standards is apparently bereft in some of the more recent commercial operators to enter the MOOC and e-learning scene. One company in particular, whom I’ve had recent experience with, typify the very essence of what’s wrong with these operators and how little integrity they actually possess. The company in question? Udacity. (That’s ‘audacity’ without the ‘a’ – and, well, their business practices are very audacious …)

I signed up for a free trial of one of their courses, or ‘nanodegrees’ as they incessantly refer to them as, after exploring their site a little and browsing through the courses. Everything seemed quite normal and innocuous. Wrong. Churning beneath the clean, white design are the machinations which lead to their out-and-out scamming me for hundreds of dollars.

The first dead giveaway, in hindsight, is the payment structure itself: 200 USD a month, with half that refunded if you complete the course within 12 months. On the surface, that seems rather expensive, but reasonable if you complete it in a few months. On closer inspection and with experience, however, you find yourself at the mercy of hapless ‘assessors’.

Completion of the course requires the submission of several projects. ‘Assessors’ then ‘mark’ the project against criteria to determine if the project, in essence, ‘passes’. But here’s the problem: if you’re paying 200 USD a month and the assessors don’t pass you by this pay cycle’s end, well, you pay another 200 USD. So Udacity actually have a strong financial incentive to delay assessment for this direct reason, but also in the long-term they wish to avoid payout of the 50% refund scheme if they can.

To blatantly delay assessing students’ projects would be a little too obvious, however, and Udacity ‘assessors’ (while they take longer than they should) aren’t so obvious. Instead, they offer impersonal, copy-and-paste blocks of text in an unaddressed e-mail for anything that wasn’t quite right. Such a response would be considered so totally outside the realms of education normally that we could close the case right about there, but to additionally give false information in that e-mail would be an even graver sin, wouldn’t it? In fact, Udacity committed this graver sin against me not just once – but twice!

Keep in mind that while such mistakes might be more forgivable if the course were a free MOOC or if these long, copy-and-paste e-mails were not so obviously copied-and-pasted. But the fact is that if this ‘assessor’ is telling me the wrong information and giving me bad instruction, they’re probably giving exactly the same wrong information and bad instruction to other students. What’s worse is that when a student goes to correct this ‘error’ in their project, and resubmits it for re-‘assessment’, a new ‘assessor’ will then give them feedback and potentially further or differently wrong information or bad instruction (or, worse yet, miss the mistake altogether and let the student carry on thinking they have learnt something when in actual fact they have learnt precisely the wrong thing).

This then leads to the misinstruction loop:

  1. assessor #1 instructs me to do A when I did B
  2. I do A when B is correct (not A)
  3. assessor #2 instructs me to change it back to B
  4. I change it back to B, and it’s a coin-flip as to whether the next assessor will let me move on or stay stuck in the loop

And, of course, just exiting the loop isn’t sufficient; this is a fundamentally flawed and impersonal mode of instruction. In fact, it leads to confusion in the student’s mind about the content and causes them to become disenfranchised with their learning.

That this is the only means of ‘personal’ instruction when Udacity plasters their site with this selling point is sufficient reason enough to realise that they are misleading their students. This is a course, and a course I was paying 200 USD a month for, and the only form of actual instruction I receive are copy-and-paste e-mails with misinstruction? Not once but twice?

With that amount of money, Udacity could and should provide a much higher quality of service or should otherwise cease with the charades about caring for students’ education. The fact of the matter is that as soon as I had the first incident of that misintruction loop (and saw how low the bar for ‘personal instruction’ was set), I let them know this wasn’t okay. The response was highly apologetic and I trusted them when they said it was a very rare occurrence and that it wouldn’t happen again. My trust was misplaced.

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