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“I can’t teach at Stanford again”

Open online courses really mess things up. The force educators/funders/learners to question the value point of traditional education. Over the past four years, many different open online courses have been offered – some through formal universities (U of Manitoba – Stephen Downes and I, BYU – David Wiley, U of Regina – Alec Couros, Stanford – Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, U of Illinois -Ray Schroeder).

I have a long running question that influences my vision of education: If we were to design education today, without the legacy baggage of the existing system, what would it look like? I don’t have a clear answer, but I think it would look similar to open online courses: distributed, leveraging network effects, participative, peer/social pedagogy, large scale sensemaking, artifact creation and sharing, knowledge growth and domain expansion, etc. There is substance to massive open online courses (MOOCs) that goes well beyond the current buzz and hype. This substance, I believe, is about aligning teaching and learning with the way in which information is created, negotiated, and shared through digital and social networks. It is in direct contrast with the value proposition of the current university system.

I was still a bit surprised by this article today – Udacity and the future of universities. Sebastian Thrun, one of the facilitators of the open online course on Artificial Intelligence at Stanford (with over 130,000 students) has left the university, bailing on his tenure appointment to run a startup Udacity. Udacity will build on the open course models of teaching and learning.

Perhaps Thrun’s move shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve interacted with many learners in the open courses we’ve done, and I frequently hear the experience described as “transformative” or “life changing”. When the education system is synchronized with the interests and passions of learners, the process is invigorating and tremendously motivating. However, when learners and educators have to fight the existing education system in order to learn and teach, it’s time for dramatic change. Thrun has recognized that tomorrow’s education system will be a function of large-scale teaching and personalized, social, participative learning. Even then, it’s still surprising to hear him state that “I can’t teach at Stanford again.”


  1. Hi George,

    You speak from an educator’s point of view (which I agree entirely with); from a learner’s point of view, I wonder if I will ever go back to doctorial studies after learning/participating on MOOCs. Despite struggling with time to participate more fully on the current Change#11, I have learnt more, have been more inspired and intellectually engaged than I ever was on the doctorate program I was on.

    Monday, January 23, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  2. Leo I. wrote:

    Are you sure that Thrun had tenure at Stanford? He had an appointment as “research professor” which, if I am not mistaken, is not on the tenure track.

    Monday, January 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  3. gsiemens wrote:

    I’m not sure about tenure – the articles does state that “He’s given up his tenure at Stanford”. But I can’t confirm that personally..

    Monday, January 23, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Joe McCarthy wrote:

    I’m a non-tenure track lecturer in a computer science program and recently looked into the Code Year project in which 360,000+ people have signed up to learn how to program in weekly online lessons. I was browsing around in the forum sections and see much evidence there of what you describe here as “large-scale teaching and personalized, social, participative learning”.

    BTW, I looked up the Stanford University Faculty Handbook section on “Titles and Ranks” and “Durations” for non-tenure line, and it appears that a Research Professor has an appointment that is renewable up to a 6 year period, so it would appear that Thrun gave up a level of job security somewhat below tenure.

    Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Permalink