Udacity MOU sparks excitement, questions

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta signed a memorandum of understanding with leading online education provider Udacity on Oct. 30. The announcement was met with a great deal of excitement and also many questions about what the agreement entails.

The MOU begins exploration of a research partnership for the collaborative development of systems for delivery, measurement and assessment of online learning courses and experiences. In addition, the MOU states that Udacity and the university will discuss the possibility of piloting one or more courses in the Faculty of Science using the Udacity platform.

“In essence, we have agreed to talk,” said acting provost Martin Ferguson-Pell. “A lot of attention has been focused on piloting a course in the Faculty of Science, but what sets the U of A apart from other schools working with Udacity is the involvement of our researchers in education, assessment and machine learning. There is nothing in this MOU, nor will there be in any future agreement, that obligates faculty members to work with Udacity or to develop online course material. Nor will any instructor’s copyright materials be taken and given to a third-party vendor.”

Further context for the MOU signing was provided in a post on the U of A blog by Ferguson-Pell.

There has been such great interest in this particular agreement that administration has decided, with agreement from Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun, to release the agreement. The document is now posted online.

Udacity considers the U of A a good partner because we are already at the forefront of scholarship and innovation in this area. Here are some examples:

  • Demonstration projects for the use of flipped classes (in which lectures are offered online and class time is used for discussion and project work) in the Faculty of Education ensure our graduates are ready to use these techniques in our schools.
  • The Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine uses synchronous, online and blended technologies to deliver the full professional entry master’s curricula in physical therapy and occupational therapy to three campuses simultaneously. This is having a significant impact on the training of clinicians who are taking up positions in rural Alberta.
  • The Faculty of Nursing has a major commitment to using digital learning technologies, even having a unit dedicated to this purpose (eLearning Services) that supports the use of eClass and eClass Live for a wide range of students, including the Post RN program.
  • The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry has invested heavily in the deployment of Homer, a sophisticated online learning environment used extensively by all our medical students. This is just one example among many involving online learning in the faculty.
  • The Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning has been collaborating with the Faculty of Education to investigate how real-time analysis of online student responses can help students progress through their coursework and improve their understanding. Other work from this collaboration includes the development of advances in methods of assessing student assignments.

Thanks to the U of A’s reputation for innovation, and our effective adoption of these technologies, opportunities to collaborate continue to develop. These include the possible collaboration that has formed the basis of the MOU with Udacity.

The research partnership with Udacity is one small part of a larger suite of recommendations made by a campus-wide Visioning Committee, which President Indira Samarasekera commissioned to explore and make recommendations on ways the university might want to amplify its existing strengths in emerging blended and online educational experiences and research toward the student experience of the future. The committee’s draft report is under review, and a summary will be released to the campus community in the coming weeks.