As InsideHigherEd reported yesterday, well-known Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun are currently teaching an online course in Artificial Intelligence that is available, for free, to anyone in the world. Unlike the previous generation of open courses, which were limited to lecture videos and syllabi, students taking this course can submit homework and take quizzes and tests for grades. When the midterm was administered last month, 175 Stanford students sat for the exam in Palo Alto, while 23,000 non-Stanford students took the same test in locations around the world, with “many scoring on par with” the Stanford students. “Those who also complete the final exam this month will get a letter signed by Thrun, along with their cumulative grade and class rank.” They won’t, however, receive official Stanford college credit.
The higher education system is currently set up so that a limited number of mostly long-established colleges and universities have an exclusive franchise on the ability to mint academic currency (credit) that can be redeemed for valuable credentials. The tens of billions of dollars currently made available by the government to subsidize higher education can only be spent at those institutions and only for credit-bearing courses. If you walk up to an employer or graduate school with a diploma or official note (transcript) certifying your credit accumulation, it gets treated like currency. Not quite as good as specie issues by the U.S. Treasury (colleges prefer you buy your credits from them, not someone else), but the underlying assumption is that your credits are probably good, particularly if they come from a regionally accredited institution.
Whereas if you walk in with a piece of paper or an email from Sebastian Thrun saying “the bearer has completed the following course of study in artificial intelligence and has passed the following assessments resulting in X class rank,” people wouldn’t really know what to do with that. The underlying assumption is that you can’t transfer it to another college or redeem it for a credential or otherwise do any of the things with it that college credits are good for.
If you stop and think about that for just a minute, you’ll realize it doesn’t make any sense.
Objectively speaking, if Sebastian Thrun, Ph.D., the brilliant scientist, TED talker, Director of the Stanford AI Lab, winner of both the Olympus Award of the German Society for Pattern Recognition and the Braunschweig Research Prize, Member of the National Academy of Engineering, general conference chair of Robotics Science and Systems 2005 and Neural Information Processing Systems 2003, and so on and so forth, writes a letter certifying that you’ve learned things in a Stanford-quality course the curriculum, lectures and quizzes for which are transparently available for anyone to see, that document should be worth much more than three credits from some random little-known accredited college for a course whose curriculum, lectures and quizzes are completely unknowable, taught by a person you’ve never heard of before whose academic credentials are insignificant or obscure.
And yet that’s not the way things work in practice. Partly because existing accredited colleges with a tremendous financial interest in retaining their exclusive credit- and credential-granting franchise work very hard to keep it that way. But mostly because people haven’t learned to think about credits and credentials in any other way. The franchise is highly dependent on a kind of mass delusion that any college credit is worth more than any non-college-granted certification of learning.
That kind of shared understanding is very powerful but also subject to abrupt phase transitions of collective consciousness. And when the transition happens, the big losers won’t be–implications of the article to the contrary–places like Stanford. The author kind of talks around the issue here:
Still, none of the experts I interviewed seriously expects Norvig and Thrun’s experiment to undermine the value proposition of a Stanford degree. There remains unique value in the on-campus experience relative to the marginal opportunities for intimate engagement for the thousands of outsiders peering through the holes Norvig and Thrun have punched in the perimeter of the walled garden.
The major value proposition of the Stanford degree isn’t the “unique value of the on-campus experience.” It’s the certification that degree-holder won the admissions tournament to be admitted to Stanford. Stanford will keep running that tournament, people will continue to be interested in who won, there is a limited supply of Thrun-like people in the world, and so Stanford will be fine.
The threat is to the random little-known accredited college and the person you’ve never heard of who is employed there teaching garden-variety, highly-replicable three-credit courses. As Thrun credits become widely accepted, people will be less willing to pay for the other kind.