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Stanford AI MOOC: let’s try transparency

Seb Schmoller has been following the Stanford AI course (now with over 225 000 registrants) closely and recently shared this link on whether the course is a launch point for a commercial venture. A company Know-Labs appears to be behind the course:

Now this sounds more like an internet startup than a university experimenting with a new form of course delivery. In fact, if you go back to the New York Times article, you learn a little more about KnowLabs: “Part of the instructional software was developed by Know Labs, a company Dr. Thrun [professor and instructor of the AI class] helped start.” Know Labs is not listed on the home page of the course, but it is listed on the registration page.

The questions at the bottom of the post about the relationship between Know Labs and Stanford are important to consider. Additional discussion can be found on slashdot.

I’m fine with commercial companies running open courses. In fact, I think it’s a great idea. What I’m uncomfortable with, however, is that open online courses are about shared ownership and transparency. Tell us upfront if you are using this to germinate a startup. Place your cards on the tables and treat your participants as equals and not guinea pigs. We discovered the importance of transparency and how participants lay claim to course ownership throughout CCK08 (particularly when Stephen auto-subscribed all participants).

The dynamics of an open course are very different from what I imagine Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig are used to in their courses at Stanford. In a MOOC, you are not the sole provider of knowledge nor the determiner of space. Transparency is vital in order to develop trust. Why is trust important in an open course? Well, an open course starts as a shell with the instructor providing links, articles, and activities. From there, learners take course content and massage it, enhance it, extend it, clarify it, question it, and improve it. Passionate learners – the ones to take the time to improve a course – need a level of trust and transparency between course organizers. In an open course, the educator isn’t the one showering participants with gifts of knowledge. The process of learning is iterative and the relationship is mutually beneficial. Participants do the course organizers as much of a favour in joining as the course organizers do in opening the course.

I had a brief email exchange with Peter and Sebastian (I wanted to get a better sense of how they were running their course, their goals, and any research opportunities). There has been a significant amount of open content and open teaching happening online since 2007. I want to see the AI open course succeed because it helps to increase awareness about distributed online learning, participatory pedagogy, and alternative course formats. It would be a shame if AI organizers ignore the work that Couros, Cormier, Wiley, Downes, and I (among many others) have been involved in over the past few years.


  1. Greg Wilson wrote:

    If you could get Thrun and Norvig to read half a dozen papers or articles to give them a sense of what’s been done, what we’ve learned from it, and what they should try (or not try), what would those six articles be?

    Friday, September 9, 2011 at 3:01 am | Permalink
  2. I have been following the MOOC parade since 2008. And yes, it does seem like the hit parade. I have always questioned the motivation behind these mega courses. I am an idealist by nature and view education and social learning as values. I would like to think of the educators involved in the MOOCs as having altruistic reasons for creating and managing them. But I get the feeling that it’s a popularity contest. What seems to count are the number of participants and recognition (of the organizing body/educators). Is your statement: “It would be a shame if AI organizers ignore the work that Couros, Cormier, Wiley, Downes, and I (among many others) have been involved in over the past few years” only about recognizing past work?

    Saturday, September 10, 2011 at 12:44 am | Permalink
  3. > It would be a shame if AI organizers ignore the work that Couros, Cormier, Wiley, Downes, and I (among many others) have been involved in over the past few years.

    This is exactly what has happened over and over in our field. I don’t expect it to be any different this time.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  4. Al Pedrazzoli wrote:

    We (as research group) are following the MOOC movement and approach since several years now, we sincerely hope that the mentioned AI course is a positive showcase for the MOOC idea. It would really be sad if it turns out to be otherwise (commercial aspects/tricks etc.) To Stephen, George, Dave and all the others involved in the MOOC arena let’s move forward and thanks to all for a job well done.
    Al Pedrazzoli – GSi EDU Research

    Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Permalink