The three most important parts of today’s New York Times article about a groundbreaking free Stanford University online course in artificial intelligence:
…has attracted more than 58,000 students around the globe — a class nearly four times the size of Stanford’s entire student body.
One of the reasons higher education has gotten so expensive over the last three decades is that traditional institutions have done a terrible job of using information technology to bring their costs down. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear university officials assert that IT costs are the cause of rising prices — “My technology expenses get bigger every year!” they say. Even the big online for-profit institutions like Phoenix are still maintaining something like a normal faculty / student ratio. Nobody has fully taken advantage of economies of scale — yet. When this course is finished, I hope Stanford takes the total cost of the course and divides it by the number of students who successfully complete it. That will be a number worth knowing.
The online students will not get Stanford grades or credit, but they will be ranked in comparison to the work of other online students and will receive a “statement of accomplishment.”
This is to be expected. A course credit from Stanford says two things about the bearer. First, “I learned a certain body of knowledge as represented by the course.” Second, “I won a highly-competitive admissions tournament for the privilege of attending Stanford.” So Stanford can’t start handing out “Stanford credits” to tens of thousands of people around the world who didn’t win the tournament, because then there’s no point in having the tournament. However, there’s nothing stopping any other, less-selective colleges and universities from awarding credit to students with a “statement of accomplishment” from Stanford, or from employers using that information to make hiring decisions, and so forth.
There has also been some discussion at Stanford about whether making the courses freely available would prove to be a threat to the university, which charges high fees for tuition. Dr. Thrun dismissed that idea. “I’m much more interested in bringing Stanford to the world,” he said. “I see the developing world having colossal educational needs.”
This is the only morally defensible position for a university like Stanford to take, and it sets a new bar for correct action among its elite higher-education peers. It will soon be unambiguously clear that vastly wealthy American colleges and universities can fulfill their mission to disseminate knowledge on a previously undreamt-of scale. The only question then will be why some of these privileged, publicly-subsidized, tax-exempt institutions are failing to do so. I also think that whichever institution is first to not just experiment with but embrace this kind of action as a fundamental part of their mission will have a huge leg up on their competitors in becoming the first true global university.
This will be remembered as an important moment in the history of higher education.Return to Top