Udacity Scholarships or: how I learned to stop worrying and love just posting all the time

A review of Udacity scholarships, the Data Science sponsored by Bertelsmann in particular

I get it.

On a wednesday in early May, I and allegedly 14,999 others received an email from Udacity informing me that I’ve been selected for the data science challenge scholarship. With a slight shock I remember I had yet to complete the ‘motivational essay’ question of the application, but I am happy to be accepted anyway. As you can read below, my application truly stood out.

See? It truly stood out.

Bertelsmann is a large German multinational multimedia company with revenue in the billions (2017). They sponsored the Udacity scholarship, which is set up in two phases:
Phase 1: 15,000 are enrolled in the (free for everyone) Udacity courses, to be completed in three months;
Phase 2: Ten percent of phase 1 participants are selected for phase two and will be rewarded with a free Nanodegree. Three Nanodegrees are possible: Data Foundations, Data Analyst & Business Analyst.

A few days later on May 8, phase one starts. The course material consists of a mandatory segment covering statistics. In it, intro to research methods, standardization, sample and normal distributions and z-scores make up most of the material. It’s well explained and reasonably interesting. A Python and a SQL segment are also part of the material, although not mandatory. However:

Advice on how to further stand out.

As all participants have been made very clear, the second criterium (after course completion) that will determine whether you’ll be selected for phase two is participation. All 15,000 students are placed in a Slack workspace (while writing this the channel general_announcements has a little over 10,000 members, I’ve never seen it reach 11,000). Alongside a Facebook group is created and in the Udacity Forum a section specific for this group sees the light.

Very quickly new Slack channels form: from resources to random and from Australasia to women_who_code. The first few days are buzzing with activity and excitement about interacting with many different people from around the world. Getting to know people and discovering their backgrounds can be a very interesting and powerful way to keep you engaged.

Great! Happy to help! Nice share, thanks! :party_parrot:

The participation criterium however also leads to an implosion of unnecessary questions and responses. The willingness to help others is a great thing, but the eagerness to do so, and to do it in a self-serving, hasty way was off-putting at times. To sum up a few, numerous times I’ve seen:

  • People being sent in wrong directions because their questions weren’t well read
  • Answers being given without any context or explanations
  • People jumping on bandwagons (“Great photo!”, “Thanks for sharing!”)
  • Questions asked that are one easy check away (but you have to get your participation points)
  • The same articles being shared numerous times

Towards the end of the course the balance between meaningful and unnecessary meaningless contact geared heavily in favor for the latter. This process was sped up when Udacity offered active members to become Student Leaders in the channels they were most active in. These students, recognizable by a Udacity badge next to their Slack name, would have time available to help out and make sure the channel ran orderly. Some or most of the channels had multiple Student Leaders assigned to them, and some SL’s made a little program and announce a schedule for group topics or quizzes. In some channels, this worked (I think). Other channels transformed from a lively community to a channel where only the Student Leaders were posting and, worst of all, high fiving each other for their posted content.

MOOC completion rates

Two weeks before the deadline on august 8th, one of the two actual Udacity mentors of the program announced that only 900 students had completed the course material thus far. This is exactly 6% of the total group, which is interestingly enough exactly the amount of people that usually finishes MOOC’s. The information also meant that there was still a good chance to end up being selected for phase two, and this made activity go through the roof. Within a day the fora and Slack channels were buzzing with activity again. Many were finishing their courses and discussing various elements and aspects.

Celebrate the celebration

Meanwhile Student Leaders in one of the channels came up with an idea to write a blog series, to be published on Medium, about what we have learned in the scholarship: the course content, not the most complex material in the world. Who the intended audience for these blogs are is unclear and doesn’t seem to require an answer, because what isn’t unclear is that writing the blogs will count towards your participation. Writing them is therefore a double win, when many of the writers post about the writing process in Slack and eventually post about the publication (yes, on Medium) in Slack and receive plentiful high fives and encouraging comments. For blogs about watered down versions of the course material, including screenshots of the videos.

When creating YouTube videos are being discussed and the Udacity mentors keep urging students to post about their experience on LinkedIn, Medium and everywhere possible, the uselessness and of it all is making me feel a bit iffy.

Gratitude, the sweet sauce

But of course, it isn’t useless at all. One party greatly benefits from all this activity and many words of gratitude written in endless blogs. It’s Udacity, who has an unpaid PR-staff of 15,000 people. They serve this army of people three strung-together, free (I will mention again; free) courses, wrap them up in a Slack group with the help of one mentor and a half and dangle a carrot in front of them in the shape of a Nanodegree for the ‘best’ 10%. This is quite the deal for Udacity, who while harvesting many terrific reviews about their courses, simultaneously making changes to their Nanodegree prices and limiting extra conditions like job guarantee. Potential new customers browsing the web must be intrigued when they read so many positive and grateful reviews, without realizing they are written by people trying to get into phase two of a sponsored Scholarship, who are trying to sound as advanced and grateful as possible.

In the final two weeks and after announcing only 900 people finished, an influx of people who had thus far finished little or nothing became visable. They were encouraged to still try and finish the course material, which was said to be very doable by Udacity mentors and Student Leaders, a message that was copied by many students. While it seems like a sweet encouraging bunch from a distance, closer inspection must lead you to the conclusion that rushing through material, especially when you are new to languages like Python and SQL, is not a very sustainable way forward. Especially if the (without a doubt more intense) Nanodegree follows that rushed learning style. Sounding positive and encouraging is great, and it’s wonderful that all those posts lead to a bigger participation for you personally, but no one seemed to wonder if it’s truly achievable and if they were honestly helping someone. Saying those words felt good though.

Final thoughts

There are channels where the above occurred less. An example is the channel book_club. Here, data science books were chosen by the group to read, and discussions of these books were usually thoughtful and lengthy. This channel (with 319 members) truly stood out, and thereby confirmed the rule of mindlessly posting all the time elsewhere. Udacity in one of the Q&A’s clarified that they’ll judge the posts on meaningful over meaningless and that sounds promising. As a data enthusiast I am very interested in understanding exactly how they process that. So far my most important takeaway is the following: always check the expertise of bloggers on Medium.

At the moment of writing, phase one of the scholarship has just finished and I’m reflecting on the whole experience. It’s understandably a smart move of Udacity to attract a larger group to make a thorough selection and only reward the Nanodegree to those with chances to see through the end. The way they gamified the way to get there leads to a frustrating and empty experience with this focus on participation. It leads to students posting meaningless content in order to make it and having to pretend it’s all wonderful. The focus in phase one is less on learning and mastering subjects, and more on parroting this PR message, dressed up as learning. I’m curious if Udacity views this as an unavoidable consequence of scaling things up or if they also see it as problematic. I welcome any feedback, different thoughts and other critiques.