Last fall Stanford Professor Sebastian Thurn along with Peter Norvig the Director of Research at Google Inc taught an Artificial Intelligence course at Stanford. In conjunction with this course, Thurn and Norvig hosted an online version complete with homework assignments, quizzes, exams and a certificate indicating proficiency signed by the instructors. While Stanford itself did not lend its own accreditation credentials to the project it helped in a small way to legitimize the enterprise. The results: “over 160,000 people worldwide signed up for the course…more from Lithuania alone than in attendance at Stanford University as a whole. The list of countries participating included students from Afghanistan as well.” 248 online students received perfect scores, and 170 members of Thurn’s physical students ended up participating online instead. Thurn decided he could no longer teach at Stanford and gave up his tenure to launch Udacity (an online university) the goal of which is to enroll 500,000 students for his first course on designing a search engine. The course begins February 20th, I’m intrigued enough by the idea that I signed up.
So where is the dereliction of duty?
Felix Salmon of Reuters explains:
I was expecting was an announcement from Thrun that he was helping to reinvent university education: that he was moving all his Stanford courses online, that the physical class would be a space for students to get more personalized help. No more lecturing: instead, the classes would be taken on the students’ own time, and the job of the real-world professor would be to answer questions from kids paying $30,000 for their education.
I have to say I’m a little sad that it’s happening away from, rather than being part of, Stanford. If any world-class university would embrace this idea, one would hope it would be the one at the heart of Silicon Valley. And surely Udacity would only benefit if it was part of Stanford and carried the Stanford brand name.
Stanford was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building a new physical campus in New York City — but it isn’t willing, it seems, to help Thrun build a free virtual campus which could reach the whole world. That’s a dereliction of its educational duty. But where Stanford has failed, surely some other elite university will step in. Thrun is taking a bold step here. Let’s hope he soon gets the support, if not of Stanford, then of some other college. Like Harvard, or Yale, or Oxford, or Cambridge. They’re exclusive places now. But they don’t have to be, in the future.
If the goal of education is to educate individuals we would certainly benefit greatly by expanding the availability of learning opportunities at a significantly reduced cost. Some university is eventually going to figure this out. The costs of a university degree, especially if you combine into the mix in the “hidden costs” paid by taxpayers is quite high and growing. In my opinion (and the opinion of others) you are buying the accreditation not the knowledge. My own university has spent hundreds of millions (outside of athletic facilities improvements) on new buildings and renovations during the past decade. Enrollment is up, so is tuition. Student fees per semester are at least as much as taking an additional course. The majority of the money rolling into our universities is fronted by the federal government in the form of low-interest deferred loans. The assumption, the value of a degree is worth it in the long run because its value never goes down. The latter sounds eerily familiar to me. Wasn’t there some other asset class which never loses its value being backed by the federal loan guarantees a few years ago?
Something to think about. In the meantime, bravo to Mr. Thurn for his great work. A marginal step in the right direction.