College Credentials: Will a Letter From Sebastian Thrun's New Startup "Count"?

Yesterday, Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun announced his resignation and plans instead to focus on his online learning startup Udacity.  Thrun taught the wildly popular Artificial Intelligence class last fall, and he now says "I can’t teach at Stanford again."  What are the implications on the ongoing disruptions to the universities' (near) monopoly over credentialing?  What does it mean when a professor sees his brand as stronger than a university's?  

January 24, 2012

Yesterday, news broke that Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University researcher and one of the professors for last fall's wildly popular online Artificial Intelligence class, was leaving his tenured position at the university to focus on his new startup Udacity.

The startup was actually a partner in running the online AI class (unlike the other two CS classes -- Machine Learning and Databases -- which were operated solely by Stanford), and so in some respects it's not surprising after seeing some 160,000 students sign up for the class that Thrun feels as though the future of higher ed isn't going to happen inside the campus grounds.

Indeed, speaking at the DLD Conference in Munich, Thrun said that "I can’t teach at Stanford again,” a comment that MOOC proponent George Siemens interprets as a signal of the transformative power of open online classes. Indeed this is a fascinating move on the part of a professor who now sees the incredible potential for liberating teaching and learning beyond the restrictions of the size of the lecture hall.

But if this is a "win" for massive online classes, is it a "loss" for universities' control (and in this case, an elite university's) over credentialing?

Those who successfully completed the AI class this fall received a letter saying such from Thrun and his co-teacher Google's Peter Norvig. That's similar to what MITx will supposedly give its students when that program launches (although the latter will cost money while the Stanford class was free.  No word on whether or not Udacity classes will remain free).  But the universities backing their online efforts make it very clear:  these letters aren't credits from Stanford or from MIT. 

Even so, it's easy to see why a letter of completion from a Stanford-sponsored or MIT-related effort might still "count" in the eyes of employers. But will a letter from Sebastian Thrun (and Udacity) have the same cache?

I've heard about job applicants (for engineering jobs in Silicon Valley, mind you) that are including "Stanford" on the list of schools they've attended, simply because they took last fall's online courses. No doubt, the university has a strong and respected brand. Will Thrun's be just as strong?  

It may well be strong enough in Silicon Valley. Sebastian Thrun is the guy who invented Google's self-driving car after all (and Udacity will actually offer a class on how to build your own).  (In his write-up of the news, Inside Higher Ed's Steve Kolowich posits that one potential business model for the new startup could be as a recruitment funnel for tech companies).

Following the announcement of MITx late last year, open education professor David Wiley wrote that the minute employers start recognizing and accepting these alternative certificates that, "that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of the tyranny of the degree. When big name employers accept another credential in place of a Bachelors, the jig is up for higher ed."

I would add to that that when a big name professor believes his brand is stronger than a big name university's and that he can create his own startup for teaching and certifying students, that the institution of higher ed is indeed in trouble -- particularly if students opt to follow that professor brand outside the walls of the university.


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