23andMe and Udacity partnership raises questions about the future of MOOCs

Bloomberg Businessweek has an interesting look at DYI genetics company 23andMe’s moves to keep ahead of the competition out to help you get to know yourself really, really well.

The part of 23andMe’s strategy that I found the most interesting was the the way the company is teaming up with Udacity, the provider of massive, open online courses, to produce a college-level class on genetics and, presumably, how to use a service like (surprise!) 23andMe to map your own genome.

Udacity announced the class called “Tales from the Genome” over the summer and it starts today. Here’s 23andMe’s own blog post on it.

I’ve been a big proponent of MOOCs (writing here and here), which have become something of a hot-button among academics who understandably feel threatened by the idea of being replaced by a video-lecturer who can reach millions of students at a time.

My argument has been that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for a MOOC. College professors and other teachers, in fact, could use the online courses as a supplement. Working professionals, those living in the developing world and others who simply can’t find their way to a college campus, could have the chance to take courses they never would be able to take otherwise.

It’s the old story: a massive, online course is only a tool. It’s how you use it that makes all the difference.

But the 23andMe/Udacity partnership presents one other pitfall I hadn’t considered until today: The rise of product placement in MOOCs. Consider this line from the online course description:

“By the end of this course, you will be able to read and understand genetic information available from personal genetics services such as 23andMe.”

Of course, you’ll have to buy 23andMe’s $99 test kit before you can read and understand your genetic information. Well, most students will have to buy it. If you look carefully at the 23andMe blog postyou’ll see that the company is offering 50 lucky (and eligible) students a free kit.

None too subtle, right?

Update: After this item was posted, a 23andMe representative called to clarify that students will not be required to buy a genetic test kit for the class.

Anyway, there is nothing to suggest the course is a cheap, marketing scam. It’s being taught by a qualified — and enthusiastic as you’ll see from the video below — instructor. And it will no doubt enhance a diligent student’s knowledge of genetics.

But keep an eye out. The day Hershey’s sponsors a massive online course that explains how massive amounts of milk chocolate bars are good for you, we’ve got a problem.

(Photo: 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki stands with company logo. By Mercury News photographer Dai Sugano)

 

 

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.