Education start-up Udacity is disrupting higher education in all the right places.
Last year, Stanford professor, Google vice-president, and engineer Sebastian Thrun ran an experiment. He opened one of his classes to the world by putting his lectures and course content online.
160,000 students later, Thrun deemed the experiment a resounding success. He promptly resigned and started Udacity, an independent education company whose stated mission is to “democratize education”.
Other new projects, like Harvard and MIT’s edX have opened Ivy League courses to the world, but Thrun is striking deeper. He’s challenging the foundation of elite education itself: credentialism.
Schools like Harvard or Stanford survive based on their elite reputation. Even a high-performer that passed the online course catalog at Harvard will never enjoy the benefits of the expensive official diploma. Graduate schools and employers look at these diplomas to evaluate the competence of a prospective professor or hire.
However much people may learn from taking Harvard courses online, the benefits of a Harvard education — reflected in the diploma — remains open only to the lucky few who can afford to attend the brick-and-mortar school.
This might seem reasonable. After all, these universities have strenuous admission standards to choose only the best and brightest. The highest performers are surely those vetted by the school.
Nope. After opening up his Stanford class to the world, Thrun found that
of all the students taking Thrun’s class globally and at Stanford, the top 410 students were online. The 411th top performer was a Stanford student.
Students are pouring in from all corners of the world to take Thrun’s classes. Volunteer student translators have set the courses into 44 different languages.
Open-access to these courses allows brilliant minds languishing in remote corners of the world to study elite disciplines like engineering and artificial intelligence.
“We just found over 400 people in the world who outperformed the top Stanford student,” Thrun observed.
But none of these people will enjoy a Stanford diploma. And Stanford itself was less than enthused with the idea.
So Udacity is bucking traditional credentials.
Here’s where Thrun’s project becomes downright disruptive. Instead of simply offering pointless certificates, Udacity will certify your skills (with an in-person test and for a fee) and hand your resume to their partner companies (for free).
Employers are already hiring from Udacity’s burgeoning learning community. The openness of Udacity allows Thrun to tailor future courses to the particular demands of the economy.
Udacity cuts out the elite middleman, and matches students with good skills to employers who want them.
Thrun’s attempt at democratizing higher education is a step beyond merely ‘open-sourcing the classroom’. For a truly democratized system, radical social entrepreneurs like Thrun have to tread on hallowed ground — the credential system that props up elite universities.
Do you think elite diplomas can ever be displaced?