Over the past few weeks, the news media has been abuzz over two developments in higher education that some in the chattering class foretell as the beginning of the end of degree programs.
First, MIT announced  that it would extend its successful OpenCourseWare initiative and offer certificates to students who complete courses. Like OpenCourseWare, which has provided free access to learning materials from 2,100 courses since 2002 (and which, with more than 100 million unique visitors, has helped launch the open education movement), MITx will allow students to access content for free. But students who wish to receive a certificate will be charged a modest fee  for the requisite assessments. The kicker is that the certificate will not be issued under the name MIT. According to the University: “MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body within the institute that will offer certificate for online learners of MIT coursework. That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion.”
Then, Sebastian Thrun, an adjunct professor of computer science at Stanford who invited the world to attend his fall semester artificial intelligence course and who ended up with 160,000 online students, announced  he had decided to stop teaching at Stanford and direct all his teaching activities through Udacity, a start-up he co-founded that will offer online courses from leading professors to millions of students. Udacity’s first course is on building a search engine and will teach students with no programming experience how to build their own Google in seven weeks. Thrun hopes 500,000 students will enroll. He called the experience of reaching so many students life-changing: “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again. I feel there’s a red pill and a blue pill. And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”
Just as the Web 2.0 boom is recapitulating much of the excitement and extravagance of the dot-com boom, we get the funny sense we’ve seen this movie before. Take a look at this excerpt from a dot-com era New York Times article with the headline “Boola Boola, E-Commerce Comes to The Quad,”  which anticipates Professor Thrun’s announcement by 12 years:
"We always thought our new competition was going to be 'Microsoft University,' " the president of an elite eastern university ruefully remarked to a visitor over dinner recently. ''We were wrong. Our competition is our own faculty.'' Welcome to the ivory tower in the dot.com age, where commerce and competition have set up shop… Distance learning sells the knowledge inside a professor's head directly to a global on-line audience. That means that, just by doing what he does every day, a teacher potentially could grow rich instructing a class consisting of a million students signed up by the Internet-based educational firm that marketed the course and handles the payments. ''Faculty are dreaming of returns that are probably multiples of their lifetime net worth,'' said Kim Clark, dean of the Harvard Business School. ''They are doing things like saying, 'This technology allows someone who is used to teaching 100 students to teach a million students.' And they are running numbers and imagining, 'Gee, what if everyone paid $10 to listen to my lecture?' ''
It was a heady time, and many in higher education really believed the hype that brand-name institutions would grow to hundreds of thousands of students and that “rock star” faculty would get rich teaching millions of students online. Twelve years later, the only universities with hundreds of thousands of students are private-sector institutions whose brands were dreamed up by marketers in the past 30 years, and the only educator who has become a rock star through the Internet is in K-12, not higher education (more on him in a moment). So what happened?
The currency of higher education is degrees because degrees are the sine qua non of professional, white-collar, high-paying jobs. The difference between not having a degree and having a degree is hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings. So what happened is that Professor Thrun’s antecedents like Arthur Miller, the Harvard Law professor, found that while they might offer courses, faculty cannot offer degrees. And their brand-name institutions have continued to prioritize avoiding “confusion” over extending access. Even MIT, the most forward-thinking of the lot, will ensure its new offering cannot possibly be construed as an MIT degree.
The noise emanating from these recent announcements boils down to this: when the chattering class meets Professor Thrun, it’s love at first sight. The notion that they might take a Stanford course for free recalls their youthful days at similar elite universities. But of course, these educational romantics already have degrees. And when Udacity begins charging even modest fees for its courses, Professor Thrun may find this group resistant to paying for lifelong learning.
On the other hand, you have the much, much larger group of non-elites who need a degree. The United States, once the global leader in the number of 25-34 year-olds with college degrees, now ranks 12th, while more than half of U.S. employers have trouble filling job openings because they cannot find qualified workers. The outsized importance of the degree itself over the university granting the degree or the faculty member teaching the course is the simplest explanation for the explosion in enrollment at private-sector universities.
As a result, the notion that certificates or “badges” might displace degrees in any meaningful timeframe is incorrect. Even in developing economies, where there is truly a hunger for knowledge in any form and where the degree may not yet be as central to the evaluation of prospective employees, the wage premium from a bachelor’s degree is even higher: 124 percent in Mexico, 171 percent in Brazil and 200 percent in China, compared with a mere 62 percent in the U.S. Degrees are definitely not disappearing; they’re not even in decline.
There are two important respects, however, in which this movie is different. The first must be credited to the first online “rock star” educator: Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching a Khan video, you haven’t missed much in the way of the simulations, animations and expensive special effects many dot-com pundits predicted would dominate online learning. A Khan video is short, just a few minutes, and teaches a single concept. It does so by showing Khan’s hand on the whiteboard while you hear his narration – an approach that is especially effective for math. Professor Thrun’s online course builds on Khan’s innovation, and the resulting andragogy is remarkable.
With regard to the more important innovation, here’s what Professor Thrun had to say in his announcement:
We really set up our students for failure. We don’t help students to become smart. I started realizing that grades are the failure of the education system. [When students don’t earn good grades, it means] educators have failed to bring students to A+ levels. So rather than grading students, my task was to make students successful. So it couldn’t be about harsh, difficult questions. We changed the course so the questions were still hard, but students could attempt them multiple times. And when they finally got them right, they would get their A+. And it was much better. That really made me think about the education system as a whole. Salman Khan has this wonderful story. When you learn to ride a bicycle, and you fail to learn to ride a bicycle, you don’t stop learning to ride the bicycle, give the person a D, and then move on to a unicycle. You keep training them as long as it takes. And then they can ride a bicycle. Today, when someone fails, we don’t take time to make them a strong student. We give them a C or a D, move them to the next class. Then they’re branded a loser, and they’re set up for failure. This medium has the potential to change all that.
So when Anant Agarwal, one of the leaders of the MITx effort, notes that “human productivity has gone up dramatically in the past several decades due to the Internet and computing technologies, but amazingly enough the way we do education is not very different from the way we did it a thousand years ago,” the major advance he has in mind is not rock star professors lecturing to millions, but rather that the online medium lends itself perfectly to a competency-based approach.
The shift from “clock hours” or “seat time” to competency-based learning is just around the corner and much more fundamental to higher education than the explosion of online delivery itself. Awarding credits and degrees based on assessed competencies will significantly reduce time to completion and therefore increase completion rates and return on investment. More important, it ensures that students actually have mastered the set of competencies represented by the degree they have earned. Though not without significant challenges, this approach has the potential to revolutionize degree programs and all of higher education from within. That’s the real Wonderland adventure. And we don’t need to take a pill to find it.
So have we seen this movie before? Turns out this one’s a sequel. But this is that very rare occasion when the sequel is much better than the original.