Has the Higher-Ed Revolution Begun?

Sebastian Thrun.pngIt’s happening, almost overnight: what could be the collapse of the near-monopoly that traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities currently enjoy as respected credentialing institutions whose degrees and grades mean something to employers.

The most dramatic development, just a few days ago, was the decision of robotics-expert Sebastian Thrun to resign from his position as a tenured professor of computer science at Stanford in order to start an online university he calls Udacity that he hopes will reach hundreds of thousands of students who either can’t afford Stanford’s $40,000-a-year tuition or who can’t travel thousands of miles to one of the bricks-and-mortar classes he used to teach.

This past fall Thrun and Peter Norvig, research director at Google (where Thrun also works, designing cars that drive themselves), teamed up to teach online and free of charge one of their regular Stanford courses, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, not just to Stanford students but to anyone who wanted to take them. Not only would the online students sit through Thrun and Norvig’s lectures, but the two instructors would test them via quizzes and written assignments, grade their work, and assign them a class ranking. Only Stanford students would be eligible to receive Stanford credit for the course, but non-Stanfordians would receive a “statement of achievement” that, together with their grades and class rankings, could be used to demonstrate that they had mastered the Stanford-level material in the course.

He Can’t Teach at Stanford Again

Thrun and Norvig’s bricks-and-mortar course, designed for graduate students and advanced-level undergraduates, had always been one of Stanford’s largest and most popular, with nearly 200 students from a range of disciplines signing up every time the two instructors offered the course. But the enrollment in last fall’s online version was exponential: 160,000 students from 190 countries registered, with about 20,000 of them completing the coursework and receiving grades that were generally on a par with those of the 175 Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortars version.

In addition the University of Freiburg sponsored the course for 54 students at several German universities, proctoring the exams and offering its own credits. What was essentially happening–and it was a revolutionary development–was that Thrun himself, not Stanford, was certifying tens of thousands of students’ mastery of an elite-university-level body of scientific material that could serve as a gateway to even more sophisticated AI courses or a good job.

Although he will remain in Stanford’s computer-science department as a non-tenured research professor, Thrun has declared that he “can’t teach at Stanford again.” Hence, Udacity. Its premier course, titled “Building a Search Engine,” to be taught by  David Evans, a computer-science professor at the University of Virginia and also free of charge, is expected to have enrolled 200,000 students by the time it opens in late February. The course promises to teach the basics of computer programming to novices in just seven weeks. Thrun himself will teach a more advanced course, “Programming a Robotic Car” (Thrun invented a self-driving car for Google).

The Thrun-Norvig course of last fall represented just one of a growing number of efforts by top universities to open their students’ learning experiences to the general public. Stanford, for example, offered two other free online courses in computer science this past fall and has added eight more starting in January. Indeed several elite private institutions, including Harvard and Yale, have been offering free online courses to non-students for the past several years (although the courses lack the grading and other feedback that the Thrun-Norvig course featured).

Harvard had earlier tried to sell online courses but discovered that few people wanted to pay for learning experiences that offered no college credits. MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, in which the university puts all the teaching materials for its undergraduate and graduate courses online, has been in existence since 2001 and has attracted more than 100,000 users. In December MIT announced plans to expand OpenCourseWare by launching a project to be called MITx, that would also offer free online courses.

Stanford.jpgWhat made last fall’s Thrun-Norvig course different–and revolutionary–was its certification component. The two instructors were effectively warranting independently of Stanford that the online students who passed the course had learned as much about artificial intelligence and had been held to the same standards as the Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortar version. Indeed, Stanford refused to have any official connection to the Thrun-Norvig course (in contrast to the other two online courses, which involved no professorial certification). Thrun and Norvig used a non-Stanford server to host their website (although it did display the Stanford engineering school seal), and posted teaching videos made outside of their Stanford classroom.

Udacity, which will similarly certify its students’ completion and mastery of material, is clearly the next logical step in developing courses exclusively for Udacity and outside the control of any university or its accrediting agency. Thrun has talked about having the certification process carried out by a third-party auditor with the hope that colleges will accept Udacity’s courses for transfer credits.

Bypassing official university structures to demonstrate academic competency is not a new phenomenon. In early January the Chronicle of Higher Education reported about the growing use of Boy Scout-style digital “badges” that certify the recipient’s specific educational skills. A free online education provider, Khan Academy, issues dozens of badges, some of them attesting to relatively simple achievements as watching a series of educational videos, and others requiring the recipient to demonstrate high levels of math competency or fine-grained technical skills such as video-editing. MIT intends for its MITx program to follow the Khan Academy’s lead–and also that of Udacity–in allowing takers of MITx courses to qualify for certificates for a modest fee, although the certificates would be issued by an independent entity to be created, not MIT itself.

According to Chronicle reporter Jeffrey Young, hundreds of education providers traditional and non-traditional hope to partake in a $2 million grant partly sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation that would fund experiments with online badge certification. Young wrote: “Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned.”

Besides threatening to up-end universities’ traditional control of educational credentials, Thrun may also drastically change the shape of for-profit education. Udacity is being operated by Know Labs, a Thrun-founded for-profit enterprise funded by the venture-capital firm Charles River Ventures. Know Labs’ ultimate aim, according to Thrun, is to offer high-quality online courses that will be either free or cheap (the company is in the process of developing a business model).

Thrun has estimated, for example, that if he and Norvig had charged only $1 apiece to all 160,000 enrollees in their artificial-intelligence course last fall, they could have easily recouped their costs. By contrast, the majority of existing for-profit colleges charge relatively high tuition that has made those institutions highly dependent upon their students’ federal grants and loans. It’s unlikely that anyone would have to borrow in order to take an Udacity course.

Critics may argue that substituting a jerry-built edifice of badges and technical certificates for brick-and-mortar learning deprives young people of the liberal-arts schooling that has traditional developed such hard-to-quantify skills as analyzing problems and thinking critically. But the opposite may be equally true: that acquiring vocational skills such as computer programming via such outfits as Udacity may free up students to use their time in traditional colleges to focus on the liberal arts. And in any event, one non-traditional entity, StraighterLine, which specializes in $99 online courses that can be transferred to its partner colleges for credit, is already developing a course it plans to call “Critical Thinking.”


6 thoughts on “Has the Higher-Ed Revolution Begun?

  1. Correct, young people are deprived of liberal-arts schooling in Thrun’s online course.
    On the other hand, Thrun does not deprive young people of their wallet.

  2. Looks like “Peak College” may have been reached with my son’s graduation last year. Well, we’re going to have one heck of a party with my granddaughter’s college investment funds we’ve been piling away.

  3. I suggest that missing the liberal arts is a hollow excuse, as the liberal arts on most campuses are hollow. Students will not be subjected to intellectual straitjacket of analysis by race, gender, and class, or be subjected to novels passing for real history like Zinn’s interesting fiction.

  4. Actually, the Stanford on-line class I took last term, Machine Learning, was not as rigorous as the brick and mortar version. Much theory and derivation was left out, according to current Stanford students. I don’t see this as a problem necessarily. ML was an excellent class for a practitioner, such as myself, trying to update my 20-year out of date formal artificial intelligence knowledge.
    Also, the ML class went to some effort to point out that the statement of accomplishment (offered to those with a weighted average score >80%) was not a Stanford credential.
    My experience was good enough to motivate me to sign up for 4 upcoming Stanford classes, and the Udacity Robotic Car class. I’ll only try to complete the 2 or 3 best (for me).

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