Updated | As winter quarter ended here at Stanford, a bunch of new reading on “massive open online courses” cropped up. Here are pieces I just added to my reader on the subject.
The blooming interest in programming is part of a national trend of more people moving toward technical fields. According to the Computing Research Association, the number of students who enrolled in computer science degree programs rose 10 percent in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available.
The 100,000+ students around the world taking CS221 online weren’t experiencing some kind of cheap, bowdlerized version of an authentic undergraduate learning experience that can only be realized through the ineffable and unavoidably expensive human bond between student and professor. They were experiencing exactly what the Stanford students were experiencing, and it was–at least, according to Thrun–better than the way the course had been taught before.
Udacity chose 200 students based purely on performance and, a few weeks ago, forwarded their resumes to companies including Amazon, Bank of America and BMW.
That’s when the Stanford administration called. Thrun had neglected to tell them about his plan—he’d had a hunch it might not go over well. The university’s chief complaint: You cannot issue an official certificate of any kind. Over the next few weeks, 15 meetings were held on the matter. Thrun talked to the dean’s office, the registrar, and the university’s legal department. Meanwhile, enrollment in CS221 was ballooning: 14,000, 18,000, and—just two weeks later—58,000.
In all those meetings, not one person objected to Thrun’s offering his class online for free. They admired his vision. The administration simply wanted Thrun to drop the assignments and certificate. He refused. Those two components, he argued, were responsible for driving the sign-ups. Someone proposed removing Stanford’s name from the course website altogether. Eventually they reached a compromise: (1) Offer a Statement of Accomplishment, not a certificate, and (2) include a disclaimer stating that the class wouldn’t count toward Stanford credit, a grade, or a degree.
Thrun didn’t have time to celebrate.
The occasional small liberal arts school goes under, and many public universities are suffering budget cuts, but as a rule, colleges are forever.
I think that rule is going to change, and soon.
Update, March 29 | 6. “New U.S. Research Will Aim at Flood of Digital Data,” New York Times, March 29:
At Stanford University, an intriguing big-data experiment in online education is under way. Last year, three computer science courses, including videos and assignments, were put online. Hundreds of thousands of students have registered and participated in the courses.
The courses generate huge amounts of data on how students learn, what teaching strategies work best and what models do not, said Daphne Koller, a professor at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
In most education research, teaching methods are tested in small groups, comparing results in different classrooms, Ms. Koller explained. With small sample groups, research conclusions tend to be uncertain, she said, and results are often not available until tests at the end of school semesters.
But in an online class of 20,000 students, whose every mouse click is tracked in real time, the research can be more definitive and more immediate, Ms. Koller said.
Update, April 8 | 7. “The MITx Factor,” Inside Higher Ed, April 6:
Massively open online courses, or MOOCs are increasingly part of the national conversation about change in higher education, as high-profile institutions such as MIT and Stanford University have anted up and gained huge followings; nobody is worried that MITx will fizzle out. The greater question is: What if MITx is too successful?
Ben Nelson, the CEO, distinguishes the new venture from the many recent efforts (like Stanford’s open courses and MIT’s new offshoot) to use technology to “disrupt” higher education, and from the handful of new entities that have sought to help selective traditional universities reach more students (like 2tor).
“This is not a technology play, it’s not a disruption, and I’m not saying, ‘Forget your degree, you don’t need one,’ ” like Peter Thiel’s experiment offering students $100,000 to forgo college, Nelson said. “I’m not saying any of those things may be invalid; there are plenty of good reasons to have badges [as an alternative to college credentials], and to expand existing programs beyond their reach.”
What hasn’t been done yet, though, is an effort to put a truly rigorous higher education in the hands of many more students at a lower price, he said.
I agree that the experiment has been a smashing success, and it’s wonderful that people all over the world have been able to benefit from the course and in some cases to excel enrolled Stanford students, already an elite group. But doesn’t all this really prove not the obsolescence of the traditional academic model but its newly enhanced value? If there’s any newspaper that has stood for the Heinlein principle that there’s no free lunch, it’s the Journal. Why has so much knowledge been diffused? Because Stanford spent over a century building its programs (especially under Fred Terman), bringing in Federal and corporate dollars, building ties with faculty and student companies, and of course charging a high but widely discounted tuition — making it a model for other elite and would-be elite institutions.