The Coming Obsolescence of Your $200,000 Degree – by “Anthony T”

The tweet pictured above was posted earlier this year by Stanford professor and Google engineer Sebastian Thrun. When not busy heading up development of Google’s self-driving car, Thrun has spent the past few months doing something equally intriguing. Thrun, along with several of his colleagues at Stanford, has been part of an experimental  program in e-learning that could one day bring Stanford quality education to the masses, and may even give your $200,000 degree a run for its money.

A brief history of e-learning

In September 2002, after years of planning, MIT made 32 of its courses available for free online in a pilot of the OpenCourseWare project. Today, OpenCourseWare has grown to include 2,080 courses, 42 of which include full video lectures. In the years following its launch, other institutions, including Yale, were quick to follow OpenCourseWare’s lead, launching similar e-learning initiatives. Apple’s iTunesU now acts as a central discovery and distribution platform for over 350,000 higher education lectures from around the world. The effects of this deluge of higher education material can be divided into two categories, the potential it holds to improve traditional education, and the promise it holds for independent learners.

To get an idea of how the availability of open course ware could improve traditional education, consider the launch of Floating University earlier this year. Charged with sharing the expertise of great minds across institutional boundaries, the debut of Floating University was notable in that three schools,  Yale, Harvard, and Bard, allowed students to enroll in the online course for credit, albeit with supplementary work at their home institutions. With this as a model, it is easy to imagine universities in the near future cross-licensing their courses, allowing new or improved courses to be introduced in video form at schools for a fraction of the cost of developing a course from scratch. Of course, Floating University’s courses are not exclusive to the three institutions named above; for $500 anyone with an Internet connection can purchase access to the video lectures. This raises an important question, however: beyond the joy of learning, what exactly are customers receiving for their money? Or more aptly, what are customers not getting?

The problem with independent learners

While the open course ware movement certainly holds potential for expanding and improving traditional education, a quick glance at its usage statistics reveals that its greatest contribution has and will continue to be in the encouragement of independent learning. As of 2010, 43 percent of Open CourseWare’s users were independent learners. For Open Yale Courses that number was nearly 70 percent. But what exactly are and should these students be receiving? The success of these initiatives makes clear the immense unmet hunger for education in our country and around the world. These independent learners take it upon themselves to expand their education, but at the end of the day, though they may be intellectually enriched, have they really been provided with any tools to better their standing in life? Why should we be rewarded for our intellectual pursuits and not the users of Open Yale Courses when, statistically speaking, it is likely that some of them have mastered the material just as well if not better than many of us have. For as hard as independent learners work, at the end of the day they are left with no proof of their growth. As a society, it is in our best interest to expand our limited view of what constitutes educational achievement. We need to be open to the development and acceptance of new signals and certifications of education. This is no easy task, however, and the problem is even greater for new educational players, such as Khan Academy, that lack ties to the world of traditional education. The educational experiments taking place today in Palo Alto, and across the world via the web, are providing a path towards breaking traditional education’s stranglehold on educational certification.

Palo Alto, Everywhere

Earlier this year, Stanford made an announcement that took the independent learning community by storm. As part of its Stanford Engineering Everywhere initiative, three computer science courses would be made available for free online, with a twist that made OpenCourseWare appear primitive. Led by Professor Sebastian Thrun and Director of Research at Google, Peter Norvig (who literally wrote the book on artificial intelligence), the goal of the project was to “change the world by bringing education to places that can’t be reached today.” Inspired by the work of Khan Academy, the pair wanted to take e-learning beyond simple video lectures. In partnership with Know Labs (a start up founded in part by Thrun) the pair developed video lectures peppered with interactive quizzes that are then worked through by the lecturers. In addition, the courses feature weekly homework assignments, a midterm, and a final, all of which are actually graded and given back to students. Registration immediately shot through the roof, with over 160,000 students registering for Thrun and Norvig’s  “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course, and tens of thousands of additional students registering for database and machine learning classes run on the same model.

Stanford’s risky little experiment has already been declared a success by many, including Professor Hal Abelson of MIT who helped to develop the original OpenCourseWare nearly a decade ago. Stanford has already announced the availability of 16 new courses for Spring 2012, including several that expand beyond computer science to fields such as medicine, engineering, and entrepreneurship. Still, there is one element of the experiment far more important than the large registration numbers and impressive technological innovations: students enrolled in the courses receive grades. Not Stanford credit, mind you, but a certificate of achievement showing how the student fared against actual Stanford students enrolled in the course in Palo Alto. This changes everything.

The road ahead

While Thrun’s tweet seems to imply that Stanford may soon package the courses and sell them for actual degrees, a development which would itself be revolutionary, the larger implications of Stanford’s experiment have already been set in motion. By issuing students certificates of achievement that clearly document the students’ relative performance, Stanford has pried open the iron grip that university degrees have held as the sole indicator of successful higher education. In doing so, they have not only paved the way for other universities to offer similar certifications, but for players not tied to traditional education to develop certifications of achievement that hold some level of legitimacy in the public eye. That’s not to say that come graduation, we will need to fear online certificates one-upping the ‘YALE’ at the top of our transcripts. Still, it’s not difficult to imagine a near future in which high evaluations on a suite of Stanford online courses and a handful of interesting side-projects could allow a degree-less individual to gain a technical interview at Google.

Peter Thiel claims that we’re in a higher education bubble, and that the disruption of education is in our best interest. I’m inclined to agree. The expansion of high-quality e-learning will bolster our economy. It will help to spur innovation that will keep us competitive on the world stage. It has the potential to finally level the playing field and to genuinely improve lives. E-learning is not going to significantly devalue our $200,000 educations anytime soon. But I look forward to the day that it does.

2 thoughts on “The Coming Obsolescence of Your $200,000 Degree – by “Anthony T”

  1. One thing interesting about open courses.is that they’re much better at educating than they are at certifying. A Stanford education isn’t valuable because you would have learned a lot – it’s valuable because it shoes you could get into Stanford and earned a diploma… I’m just skeptical of the effects of open education on the “real” education market.

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  2. I agree with you Will – although I might go even further than certifying and say it is really advertising that a Stanford degree helps with. The job market is all about “selling” yourself and the better your advertising (for a college grad, this is usually all they have) the more likely you are to secure a position. Sometimes people forget, especially at a liberal-arts school like Yale, that the reason we are here is to improve our chances at getting a job in the future. Whether this comes through the Yale name, our individual GPA, or networking, the combination of these things is something an open course will never be able to give someone.

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