This week, Sebastian Thrun, one of the adjunct professors who taught Stanford’s open online Artificial Intelligence course this past fall, announced that he will be offering a new open course starting in February. It’ll be free, and it’ll be online. It also won’t have any university affiliation.
The announcement led to a flurry of discussion about the future of higher education and of brand and its role in the brave new world of learning, 2012-style.
Audrey Watters wrote a piece for Inside Higher Education about college credentials, wondering whether students will choose to follow a star professor’s individual brand “outside the walls of the university.” In the same publication, on the same day, Steve Kolowich said Thrun’s new startup, KnowLabs, would “put the importance of the institutional brand to the test.”
Both stories suggest that KnowLabs is a test case for the power of the personal brand to lead learning initiatives.
(Truth is, that’s already been shown. In terms of scale, sure, the Stanford/KnowLabs case is a far more massive proof of concept than the Massive Open Online courses like #change11 or the many MOOCs that have preceded it. But the truth is, George Siemens and Stephen Downes and others de-coupled their MOOCs from formal accredited offerings a few years back, and have already shown that thousands of people are, in fact, quite willing to follow the brand of an individual facilitator beyond the walls of academia.)
But this is NOT a personal brand versus institutional brand game. It’s something new: it’s about brand as a way to be part of an entirely different game of learning.
Academic institutions have been the primary keepers of knowledge in Western society for centuries: as such, they’ve also played a central role in according individuals the status of “knower” within our culture.
As I commented on Watters’ article, Thrun’s personal brand is still built on and in the institutional brand system, the one by which big universities like Stanford hold claim to particular standards of knowledge and status. Thrun’s association with them credentializes him as a professor. His personal brand is built in part on his institutional affiliations. Of course people will follow him, Pied-Piper-like, outside the walls of the university: he’s been vetted and found good enough for Stanford. Why wouldn’t he be good enough to teach little old me for free?
(Well, so long as I don’t want or need formal credit for the experience of learning with him. More on that in a minute).
Thrun’s street cred is also based in his history with Google. In this, he follows the long-trodden path of business and industry “experts” who are in effect accredited as knowers by their own success: their reputation grants them recognition in the eyes of those who value their knowledge, whether or not it has been stamped by a formal institution.
It is this issue of accreditation that seems to fester and bubble at the heart of most of the conversation around open online learning initiatives, large or small. The stamp – or brand – of formalized learning still represents to many minds the be-all and end-all of education: it’s raison d’etre. But this vision of brand is an outdated game.
The institutional model of knowledge and knowers that dominated pre-digital society rested on the philosophical assumption that courses exist to credential students and move them through an organized and predetermined structure. This is the business model of the modern university, sure, and predates it to the extent that credentialism of knowledge has held industry status in our culture.
This model, however, is not about learning. It encourages us to view learning through the lens of retention and completion rates; from a perspective of credits bestowed. These lenses are hugely important for contemporary academic institutions, but what they tell us is more about the success of the institution than the success of the learner on his or her own terms. And that’s an increasingly critical distinction.
Open online courses come at the idea of learning not from a “what is taught” perspective of value, but a “what is accessed” perspective of value. They don’t necessarily claim to assure anything is learned: they don’t tend to offer credentials, beyond (in some cases) a minimal badge acknowledging that participation occurred. But their goal is NOT to be externalizable measures of what information a person has mastered. Their goal is to offer people the chance to access, in an organized fashion, information and ideas, and to participate in the learning experience around that information or those ideas. They follow the participatory model of learning, which is social and rhizomatic and based more in notions of intrinsic value than of extrinsic credentializing.
If I participate in a MOOC or in Thrun’s new course, it’s not an opportunity for me to be sanctioned by an existing institutional brand, no. But it’s an opportunity for me to develop my own interests and ideas and brand as I learn and connect and perform my knowledge in a networked environment of inquiry.
Digital networks connect people and allow for the sharing and working through of ideas. Knowledge is no longer the sole or even primary purview of institutions: it’s out there, part of what Haraway called “the integrated circuit.” And if I am out there too, I can participate in the creation and sharing of knowledge, whether or not I have any institutional affiliation. I do so by engaging, by putting ideas out there and contributing to the ideas of others: by building my reputation or brand as someone who has something of value to contribute. Brand is not necessarily the end-goal of this game: it’s simply what you build as you play.
This is the networked reputation model for participatory learning. It’s social. It’s informal. It’s learner-centered and it’s not going away.
MOOC participation, then, isn’t about following a star facilitator’s brand outside the walls of academia. It’s about developing one’s own brand and reputation as a learner and knower, irrespective of those walls.
Now, Some of us straddle the two worlds. Some aren’t interested in formal, traditional models of higher education at all. And some need formalized credentials but also want access to contemporary up-to-the-minute expertise and participation that traditional academia simply cannot and does not provide. Sometimes, many of us require levels of vetting for particular pieces of knowledge that the informal peer processes of networked branding and open learning can’t offer.
Sometimes, Sebastian Thrun attested, going social in learning makes it hard to go back to the formal model.
Both types of learning have their place. But the open online courses simply don’t exist to do the things traditional courses do. Considering them on those terms is like judging a basketball team for playing bad soccer. Different game. Shared audience in terms of the sports market pie? Sure. But there’s more than one game in town in terms of higher education now.
And while MOOCs may be an example of personal brand driving people beyond the walls of institutional academic brands, this isn’t just about the individual brands of facilitators. It’s about the participants, and what they have to gain.
(I was tickled to see Steve Kolowich call the Stanford AI course a MOOC. Dave was part of the coining of the term, and while it was obvious to most in the networks of educational technologies this fall that the much-talked-about Stanford initiative was, in fact, a MOOC, the word wasn’t a familiar one to the New York Times et al. It’s an awkward term, sure. But most neologisms are: I still haven’t heard a simple alternative arise to conceptualize these large-scale, networked offerings, and so I’m kinda rooting for it. MOOC MOOC. MOOC.)