By Bill Keller, The New York Times´ OP-ED Columnist
FOR more than a decade educators have been expecting the Internet to transform that bastion of tradition and authority, the university. Digital utopians have envisioned a world of virtual campuses and “distributed” learning. They imagine a business model in which online courses are consumer-rated like products on Amazon, tuition is set by auction services like eBay, and students are judged not by grades but by skills they have mastered, like levels of a videogame. Presumably, for the Friday kegger you go to the Genius Bar.
It’s true that online education has proliferated, from community colleges to the free OpenCourseWare lecture videos offered by M.I.T. (The New York Times Company is in the game, too, with its Knowledge Network.) But the Internet has so far scarcely disturbed the traditional practice or the economics at the high end, the great schools that are one of the few remaining advantages America has in a competitive world. Our top-rated universities and colleges have no want of customers willing to pay handsomely for the kind of education their parents got; thus elite schools have little incentive to dilute the value of the credentials they award.
Two recent events at Stanford University suggest that the day is growing nearer when quality higher education confronts the technological disruptions that have already upended the music and book industries, humbled enterprises from Kodak to the Postal Service (not to mention the newspaper business), and helped destabilize despots across the Middle East.
One development is a competition among prestige universities to open a branch campus in applied sciences in New York City. This is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to create a locus of entrepreneurial education that would mate with venture capital to spawn new enterprises and enrich the city’s economy. Stanford, which has provided much of the info-tech Viagra for Silicon Valley, and Cornell, a biotechnology powerhouse, appear to be the main rivals.
But more interesting than the contest between Stanford and Cornell is the one between Stanford and Stanford.
The Stanford bid for a New York campus is a bet on the value of place. The premise is that Stanford can repeat the success it achieved by marrying itself to the Silicon Valley marketplace. The school’s proposal (unsubtly titled “Silicon Valley II”) envisions a bricks-and-mortar residential campus on an island in the East River, built around a community of 100 faculty members and 2,200 students and strategically situated to catalyze new businesses in the city.
Meanwhile, one of Stanford’s most inventive professors, Sebastian Thrun, is making an alternative claim on the future. Thrun, a German-born and largely self-taught expert in robotics, is famous for leading the team that built Google’s self-driving car. He is offering his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online and free of charge. His remote students will get the same lectures as students paying $50,000 a year, the same assignments, the same exams and, if they pass, a “statement of accomplishment” (though not Stanford credit). When The Times wrote about this last month, 58,000 students had signed up for the course. After the article, enrollment leapt to 130,000, from across the globe.
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