A Watershed Moment: Stanford’s Elite Classes for the Masses

Intro to databases

Lesson #1: a database looks like a cylinder for some reason

Every now and then, you come across something that just makes sense. With over 200,000 students signed up worldwide, Stanford’s engineering department is teaching three classes over the internet – available for free to all – that mimic the content of course material being taught on campus. They are Introduction to Artificial IntelligenceMachine Learning, and Introduction to Databases. They all run from this week through December and students can either just follow the lectures at arm’s length to quench their curiosity or can fully participate by completing all lectures and quizzes along with a midterm and a final. Folks that do the latter can get a “certificate of completion” from the instructor – protecting the $50K per year investment of actual Stanford students (well, you know, their parents). There’s been a lot of excitement and interesting articles written up about this but I wanted to put my thoughts down as I just came across this a couple weeks ago (and have signed up of course).

This is a very unique scenario – one where a marketing tag-line is more description than hyperbole: “A bold experiment in distributed education.” To my knowledge, this is the first instance where high quality classes are being distributed online by selective higher education institutions with a defined schedule, opportunities for student discussions, and with a tangible and measured goal for students. In other words, the value that people pay a crap load of money for today – for free. Fine, not exactly, but it sure does feel like it’s value is getting awful close.

Caveats: To be clear, there’s tons of great free educational content online for the motivated and curious on the internet. You can learn how to program an iphone app, how to play Justin Bieber on the ukelele, and accounting basics online through iTunesU downloads, youtube videos, and Khan Academy videos. TED has done a lot to keep the world inspired and shoot, even e-how blogs get a shout here for teaching me some last minute Halloween costume ideas. Then, there is great paid online education being pioneered by the standardized test prep folks – Princeton Review, Kaplan, Knewton etc. – and for-profit online colleges (although I have no direct experience with the latter). Lastly, selective institutions of higher education have already done a lot with online education and from what I can tell, Stanford (Stanford Engineering Everywhere) and MIT (MIT OpenCourseWare) have been leading the charge.

Disruptive Innovation

Credit: Somewhere from the Internet but really from Clayton Christensen

All that said, this is a very significant step forward in truly disrupting higher education as we know it. Disruptive innovation starts off crappy as shown in the green graph above and only early adopters will find it useful – I’ve heard that some of the first digital cameras were so expensive and of such crappy resolution that their only significant target market was as toys for the kids of rich people – not a very big target market. Meanwhile, the traditional educators at Stanford (purple graph) presumably keep getting better at educating their students. There’s one red line on this picture but in reality there are several horizontal red lines for different market segments.

The early adopter for the education market may well be professional software folks. They are looking for very specific information, are connected, can search through lots of data on the internet for their results, and aren’t looking at education as a signaling mechanism. The highest red line or “adoption laggards” are probably poor grade school kids who need lots of non-digital guidance and motivation. There have a been a couple of NYTimes articles recently about how software tools aren’t quite producing results in these environments. While the articles may be right about some disingenuity on the part of these software companies in selling their wares as magic potions – it’s just a matter of time before they get it right for grade schoolsBefore that happens though, we can expect mass adoption for job training classes, graduate school, and higher education.

The advances made in these classes are moving wide adoption of online classes decisively closer:

Live course structure: Just like a real class, there’s a structure and rhythm to these classes. Previously, the pacing was missing. Video lectures used to be posted online and folks would just do them “on their own” along with the problem sets. Now, lectures have to be watched within a week as the course goes along this fall and problem sets have to be completed by the next week for credit. Just like a strict professor in college – if you’re late with a problem set, too bad! This is a huge motivator and keeps students involved and focused.

Help!: One way online classes break is that students don’t understand something and then they get stuck. In these classes though, the professors and TAs are making some time to take questions online during live chats. Moreover, there are discussion boards where questions can be asked and answered quickly. With so many active students, chances are that a question is already posted and answered by a student. Another safeguard – questions can be voted up and the staff can ensure that the good ones shared by many get answered. Lastly, there are so many students that local meetups are being organized where folks can study together.

Quizzes and Grading: It’s all about feedback. Students learn, practice, and get acknowledged that they’re moving forward. The acknowledgement portion has been available before in the paid courses I had mentioned but not for free and not with a connection to an elite institution.

Signaling: “Look, mommy – I AM somebody!” That’s one reason people go to college. To signal to their parents, peers, and employers that they learned something and can keep learning. It is another motivator. The instructor provided certificate goes some ways toward allowing students to signal their capacity and industry. It’s not Stanford course credit but the target segment for now (self-motivated students who really want to learn this stuff and have the means to do it) will be fine with a letter from a Stanford instructor as this is not a prime motivator for them. This needs to be worked out (and surely will) in the future for more mass adoption to happen.

There’s lots that still needs to be worked out. It’s important to prevent cheating. Proving that the work was really done by the student logged in is important and can be further improved in the future (live camera during test taking using AI to match face with photo taken during signup and a driver’s license photo?). Peer effects is a huge part of education. Although not the focus of these courses, is a huge part of the value propostion of selective higher education institutions. This can be mitigated through selective cohort programs distributed worldwide with a physical component. Lastly, learning through osmosis that happens by being in a place – benefits a startup may get by being in Silicon Valley or a student gets by living on campus – is likely a part of the traditional value proposition that will be hard to capture through digital education.

DB Class Student Locations around the world

Self reported physical locations of some of the students in the database class as of 10/9/2011

Where do we go from here?

If these experiments are successful, the physical educational conolianism that came as a part of the globalization movement over the past decade will likely come to an abrupt end. For example, NYU built a campus in Abu Dhabi with the sheik’s money – I mean, what does that even mean? I guess it means that NYU is not a location but really a bunch of processes, personnel, and a brand. Well, if that is really true, instead of all the capital investment needed to extend an institution physically, like in the competition underway in NYC by the Bloomberg administration, why not extend through amazing digital courseware? Also, a strong argument could be made that these types of courses provide educational access to more nooks and crannies much more efficiently than merit or need based aid can. Lastly, all these professors at Harvard who hate students and hate teaching can rejoice! They can probably focus much more on their research and students can have better access to superstar professors who actually care about teaching.

Outside of that, there’s an opportunity for companies to recruit folks for process oriented jobs through digital coursework. The ROI for these types of job training courses can be unbelievable and can alleviate some of the structural unemployment in western countries. IBM is conducting an experiment in NYC right now – they’ve created a computer science-focused high school spanning grades 9-14 whose graduates will be first in line for jobs at the company. This is great and addresses IBM’s hiring issues very early in the pipeline. It probably makes sense for them and other companies to attempt digital courses for older folks in the near term.

There is also opportunity for startups to get in and offer technologies over which companies and universities can host and easily setup these classes. I can imagine an open source non-profit model working here as well.

It remains to be seen exactly how well it’ll work, but all signs point to the fact that these everywhere classes represent a watershed moment. The costs of the same quality of instruction are noted to be about 1-2% of what it costs to provide higher education classes today. How much of the value does it need to capture before it really tips into the main stream? To me, it’s a matter of when, not if.

I’m no expert in any of this – I just find it all to be insanely exciting. What do folks think? Are there real holes in this model which will really keep digital education on the margins for long? Similar to journalism, will there be a forced decrease in quality?