Have you ever read a newspaper or magazine article that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck, but you weren’t sure at first why?
Consider this interesting piece in the February 3 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which profiles Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University professor who has recently left his tenured teaching position (while retaining an untenured research appointment) to start up a company that offers free online courses in computer science. Called Udacity, the company currently offers two introductory programming courses — one for students with no previous background in the subject (CS101: Building a Search Engine), and the other for students with no actual programming experience (CS 373: Building a Robotic Car). Eight additional classes are planned for 2012. While students who complete the courses can receive “a certificate signed by the instructors,” Udacity offers no formal credentialing or certification, and no formal academic credit.
Why would this news raise the neck-hairs of someone who works in academe? Consider the following.
First, this professor’s goal is to reach 500,000 students. That would sound more audacious if he hadn’t already succeeded at attracting 160,000 students to a free online course in artificial intelligence that he offered while still in his teaching position at Stanford. Five hundred thousand is a potentially game-changing number of students – imagine if 10 companies achieved that goal – and things that change the game are always threatening to academics, the parameters of whose game are well-established and deeply, lovingly entrenched.
Second, Thrun’s company is unabashedly for-profit. This always bothers the academic, for a variety of reasons both good and, sometimes, perhaps more reflexive than good. One question that inevitably arises whenever education is offered by a for-profit company is that of bias — to what degree does the profit motive slant the teaching of a course? (One response to that question might be: how unbiased is the teaching in a nonprofit university setting?) Of course, all of this begs another, more practical question: How do you make a profit teaching if you don’t charge tuition? The answer to that question in this case remains murky, at least in Thrun’s public pronouncements, though he has hinted that one possible revenue stream could come from connecting Udacity to a recruiting service for businesses looking for people with specific skills. In any case, Thrun’s retention of his research appointment, a reportedly healthy infusion of venture capital, and the fact that Thrun himself is well-enough off that he was able to sink $300,000 of his own money into the venture takes some of the pressure off of Udacity to provide him with a living in the immediate future.
Third, the fact that Udacity offers no formal credentialing puts a very interesting twist on some age-old questions about the deepest purposes of education: does the fact that Udacity students will gain knowledge but no formal credit for completing these courses suggest that it offers a purer educational experience than what they get at a traditional institution of higher education? Granted, the courses currently offered by Udacity are all in technical and applied areas of computer science, as are all those announced for the coming year – future plans include courses in computer security, operating systems, and software engineering. (Thrun sees the challenges of using this kind of structure to teach humanistic topics as a “hurdle,” one to be overcome in the future.) But the question remains: is Udacity not an example of learning for the sake of learning, and perhaps a better example of that exalted endeavor than what we increasingly see in the traditional university?
Fourth, consider this quote from George Siemens, Associate Director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University (“Canada’s open university”):
The way we’re communicating and creating and sharing information has changed so dramatically that the structure of the university increasingly looks like the structure of the recording industry in the later 90s, where you have a model that isn’t really serving anyone except for the companies that are in charge of the model.
When higher education is being compared to the recording industry of the 1990s, it’s enough to make anyone’s hair stand on end. And it’s also worth noting that Siemens’ comments about the higher education establishment sound an awful lot like what we librarians tend to say about publishers.
This article reminded me of something a new college president once said in a conversation with library staff. Paraphrasing, he said, “You know, if the Walt Disney company were to decide that it wanted to get into the business of teaching introductory algebra, it would do it better than we do. Graduate-level econometrics? Probably not. But introductory algebra? Absolutely.” Maybe we don’t think that introductory algebra (or “Building a Search Engine”) is at the core of the university’s mission. Well, okay then – there seems to be a growing number of entities out there who are willing to take that burden, and its attendant students, off our hands.
Editor’s Note: In early September 2012, Colorado State University announced it will accept transfer credits from Udacity, the first university to take this step.