Everything we Used to Think About College is About to Change

Sebastian Thrun, a tenured computer science professor at Stanford University recently quit his job to dedicate all his efforts to an online school he helped create last year called Udacity. The school’s very first course offering, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,” attracted over 160,000 students in over 190 countries. It helps that the school’s courses are absolutely free, at least for now – how will they make money? But the big picture here is that there are a LOT of people who crave this caliber of information, who would not otherwise have the means to get it. Getting into Stanford is notoriously difficult, and even if a student is accepted, there is still the problem of paying for it. Thrun and his fellow co-founders David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky started Udacity because they believe that education can be delivered a lot more efficiently. They believe more people should have access to information and resources that, up till now, have been controlled by traditional universities.

They are right of course. The Internet has revolutionized information delivery. Anyone with access to the Internet (unfortunately this still excludes a lot of people) can have the world’s greatest library at their fingertips. With online courses and videos, we have access to any great thinkers and innovators who choose to share what they know. What, if anything, do traditional universities still have to offer?

Alan Jacobs wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: “Of course, there have always been autodidacts, especially in the technical realms. But what happens if universities come to see it as part of their mission not just to benefit from the next Bill Gates or Steve Wozniak but actually to produce him — or her — without having any formal relationship to that person at all? This could get dicey. At least in some disciplines — though surely not in all — even the great universities of the world could soon find themselves with nothing valuable to sell.”

The thing that universities still offer is credibility . . . credentials. After all, would Udacity have attracted 160,000 students if the Professor hadn’t been from Stanford? Maybe. In the tech world, its possible to gain credibility by virtue of one’s invention or start-up success. I’m sure people would have signed up for classes by Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg too, regardless of where they went to school.

But if you are a history expert and hope to provide an online course in history, how is anyone to know that you know what you are talking about? Without university credentials, your only hope is to have published reviewer-acclaimed books. But how would you get your books published in the first place without proving to the publisher that you know your stuff?

Artists, dancers, musicians, athletes, fiction writers, entrepreneurs, and skilled trade artisans are all well able to show tangible evidence of their skills. But not many people would want to take a chance with a self-trained historian or veterinarian or psychologist or economist or anything that is difficult to prove.

Credentials are kind of like money. Money represents value so that we don’t have to carry around cows and pumpkins hoping to trade with someone who has an extra pair of shoes. Money (and credentials) stands for something else that has value. As we negotiate prices, we are continuously changing the relative value of money. The same is true for information and education. As supply and demand changes with new technology, we are changing the relative value of credentials.

Already, the founders of Udacity foresee a future where tech firms will recruit new employees from this school, not because the school is accredited, but because it is the best.

I’m really excited to see where this takes us. As a firm believer in self-directed education, I would love to see society move away from the habitual conviction that a college degree is the only path to knowledge or success.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Don’t get me wrong – I still think that universities have a lot to offer. I love to live near universities because they have so much positive energy and cultural opportunities. But why should students sit in a crowded lecture hall watching a Powerpoint presentation on an overhead projector when they could get the same thing (or better) on their laptop at home? There must be a way that universities could offer physical space to the classes that are best taught in person, such as labs, small group discussions, studio art, etc… while providing access to the best possible instructors via online courses for everything else. This would lower prices for everyone.

Maybe universities could become more business oriented, where customers could enroll for any courses they wished to pay for, without worrying about admissions or degree requirements. Then when they applied for jobs, they would attach a transcript of courses taken rather than simply a degree in such-and-such. Or maybe more universities could be like Oxford and allow students to plan out their personal course of study with the help of an academic advisor.

There are so many possibilities!!! What do you think? How can the great potential of self-directed education coexist with the need for credentials?

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  1. […] Stanford and MIT online courses that are completely free. And not long ago, a group of professors quit their tenured positions – some of them from Stanford, no less – to start Udacity, an online university-level […]