On online learning: “Stanford, like newspapers and music companies and much of traditional media a little more than a decade ago, is sailing in seemingly placid waters. But Hennessy’s digital experience alerts him to danger. He says, ‘There’s a tsunami coming.’”
Near the end of the New Yorker article “Get Rich U” by Ken Auletta about Stanford University, there is a section about online learning (here):
..... Another person who is pleased with the withdrawal is Marc Andreessen, whose wife teaches philanthropy at Stanford and whose father-in-law, John Arrillaga, is one of the university’s foremost donors. Instead of erecting buildings, Andreessen says, Stanford should invest even more of its resources in distance learning: “We’re on the cusp of an opportunity to deliver a state-of-the-art, Stanford-calibre education to every single kid around the world. And the idea that we were going to build a physical campus to reach a tiny fraction of those kids was, to me, tragically undershooting our potential.”
Hennessy, like Andreessen, believes that online learning can be as revolutionary to education as digital downloads were to the music business. Distance learning threatens one day to disrupt higher education by reducing the cost of college and by offering the convenience of a stay-at-home, do-it-on-your-own-time education. “Part of our challenge is that right now we have more questions than we have answers,” Hennessy says, of online education. “We know this is going to be important and, in the long term, transformative to education. We don’t really understand how yet.”
This past fall, Stanford introduced three free online engineering lectures, each organized into short segments. A hundred and sixty thousand students in a hundred and ninety countries signed up for Sebastian Thrun’s online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class. They listened to the same material that Stanford students did and were given pass/fail grades; at the end, they received certificates of completion, which had Thrun’s name on them but not Stanford’s. The interest “surprised us,” John Etchemendy, the provost, says, noting that Stanford was about to introduce several more classes, which would also be free. The “key question,” he says, is: “How can we increase efficiency without decreasing quality?”
Stanford faculty members, accustomed to the entrepreneurial culture, have already begun to clamor for a piece of the potential revenue whenever the university starts to charge for the classes. This quest offends faculty members like Debra Satz, the senior associate dean, who regards herself as a public servant. “Some of the faculty see themselves as private contractors, and, if you are, you expect to get paid extra,” she says. “But, if you’re a member of a community, then you have certain responsibilities.”
Sebastian Thrun quit his faculty position at Stanford; he now works full time at Udacity, a start-up he co-founded that offers online courses. Udacity joins a host of companies whose distance-learning investments might one day siphon students from Stanford—Apple, the News Corp’s Worldwide Learning, the Washington Post’s Kaplan University, the New York Times’ Knowledge Network, and the nonprofit Khan Academy, with its approximately three thousand free lectures and tutorials made available on YouTube and funded by donations from, among others, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and Ann and John Doerr…..
In mid-February, Hennessy embarked on a sabbatical that will take him away from campus through much of the spring. His plans included travelling and spending time with his family. The respite, Hennessy says, will provide an opportunity to think. Of all the things he plans to think hard about, he says, distance learning tops the list. Stanford, like newspapers and music companies and much of traditional media a little more than a decade ago, is sailing in seemingly placid waters. But Hennessy’s digital experience alerts him to danger. He says, “There’s a tsunami coming.”