Skip to content

Scaling what was previously unscalable

For people who have been involved in online education for the past 15 years, or distance education for the past 40 years, the current hype and energy around learning at a distance must be a bit odd – like waking up to discover that your life’s work is suddenly being “discovered” by others and labelled as “new”. I’ve been playing with online learning since late 1990′s, but colleagues at Athabasca University and other open university systems have been at it much longer under the term of “distance learning” or “distance education”. Today, it’s rare to read commentary on education that doesn’t a) call for urgent reforms, and b) tie reforms to online learning.

Today, the NYTimes details the University of Wherever, focusing on the Stanford open course in Artificial Intelligence. The article acknowledges, briefly, the history of online learning in community colleges, and then goes on to detail how “elite” universities like Stanford will disrupt education. Quoting the lead professor in the course, Sebastian Thrun, the article author states:

Thrun acknowledges that there are still serious quality-control problems to be licked. How do you keep an invisible student from cheating? How do you even know who is sitting at that remote keyboard? Will the education really be as compelling — and will it last? Thrun believes there are technological answers to all of these questions, some of them
being worked out already by other online frontiersmen.
“If we can solve this,” he said, “I think it will disrupt all of higher education.”

Open online courses offer the prospect of scaling what was previously unscalable. The printing press enabled large scale reproduction of text. The web enabled content reproduction and sharing with dramatically reduced costs. The emerging web (web 2.0 or whatever term you prefer) allows a new kind of scaling: social interaction, and, by extension, teaching.

I’m quite interested to see how the Stanford courses will manage the social aspect. The first approach – opening lectures and giving students tools or techniques for experimentation and self-evaluation – is about content scaling. The second approach of creating an ecosystem where learners can self-organize and form sub-clusters for learning activities is a more complex challenge. This challenge, however, is critical if the course is to move past traditional course model and into something quite new. The “quite new” aspect in this case is the ability for individuals to not only interact with the curriculum Thrun has created, but to build, extend, improve, challenge, and enhance the knowledge domain of the course. In addition to expanding the course knowledge domain, learners also need to engage in shared wayfinding and social sensemaking techniques to learn. Thrun is not scalable. Social interactions between learners, on the other hand, are scalable. This latter aspect is where all the fun stuff and innovation in education will happen.


  1. Chris Lott wrote:

    Odd and scary. While there are certain drawbacks from “flying under the radar” there is also great freedom there– and arguably it is the only phase within the institutional life of an idea where innovation can happen. Then comes the risk-averse institution leeching initiatives dry and ingesting the shallowest lessons to “scale” them within the traditional, leveling structure, the sustenance of which is their only consistent reason for being.

    I’m not without hope, but it’s often dim and always frustrating. The scalable you talk about here is only so if one accepts changes in ideas of assessment and learning outcomes and large swathes of the minutiae that are woven into the academy and I find that unlikely… and not completely unreasonably so.

    Monday, October 3, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  2. Mark Gbur wrote:

    Interesting read George,

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “Thrun is not scalable.”

    In addition to getting systems that can scale, you also need to get personnel up to speed who can manage and thrive in such environments. Those days are probably further off than getting the system to scale.


    Monday, October 3, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  3. Andrea wrote:

    I am interested too in the social aspect. One disappointing thing I have noticed is some people make fully online a where ever/whenever thing where students work by themselves and then are assigned a mentor. The social is then provided in some random forum. I hope that does not become the general trend; – as you say there must be real social interaction and collaborative learning for distance to work! Just hope Stanford gets expert support in course design.

    Monday, October 3, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink