brand in open courses: the new game in higher education

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.)



11 Comments brand in open courses: the new game in higher education

  1. Cliff Davidson

    Well done. I love how you’ve framed the discussion, and agree that it’s a new game, but not one that will replace the old. Perhaps the reasoning for the new method of learning is to fill the gaps found in traditional higher ed bricks and mortar… what those gaps are though, that’s the interesting part. I don’t think that tech itself is a gap, those that will take the courses to learn from those experts will be the ones who already have some engagement and are in the know. The disengaged at traditional higher ed places are not going to be the ones searching out and finding courses/programs like this… they’re too lazy :)

  2. Debbie S.

    Sometimes those who are “disengaged,” Cliff, are those who see most clearly the bigger picture – and point out the naked emperor. Perhaps those are the people MOST likely to search out these types of as-yet-non-traditional courses. People like Gates and Jobs come to mind – those with a quest for knowledge and no patience for “the game.”

      1. Debbie S.

        I do think that the “norm” of traditional high-ed brick & mortar schools will change. After all, in the past, we NEEDED those schools as a center of learning. Now, information is ubiquitous and decentralized. There really is no NEED for the old, expensive model of high ed. So yes, those who are motivated yet disengaged may still be the exceptions to the rule right now. But if the rule changes…

        1. Cliff Davidson

          I think it will change slowly and surely of course. We still need those centres of learning for the non-tech/non-identified expert education. The information is available but how do people know where to look or who to look for? Sure there are places where you can find knowledge, but how do you know which knowledge to look for. People don’t know what they don’t know.

      2. bon

        what i wonder about is how this hardens, as people rush to build profit models around it. the people you two point to aren’t necessarily different: in the MOOCs, it’s been largely those “in the know” regarding edtech who’ve engaged. not universally, of course. and these are often people dissatisfied with the formal ed status quo: creatives willing to look for alternatives. but you’re right, Cliff, there are whole other populations this model may not serve, at least right now. and a lot of those populations are currently concentrated in and on the traditional institutional model. interestingly, there’ve been arguments for a number of years that many of the people who assume that their path ahead is formal education may be unpleasantly surprised: we’ve taken credentialism and the idea of education as a panacea so far that the system can no longer hold. maybe this form of peer credentialism is a way to begin to rethink that system and its excesses?

        i know it’s more complicated than i’m allowing for, and i don’t think this is a utopian alternative…there are huge issues raised by branding. but…it’s interesting. ;)

        1. Rob Paterson

          Hi Bon
          How does this “harden”? I think as with the early days of universities.

          In Padua, a critical mass of Teachers emerged. This acted as a centre of gravity. From this an organization.

          You see remnants of this at Oxford and Cambridge where the “University” is more of a network icon for the colleges. You don’t go to Oxford – you are a member of a college and so part of the university.

          I can see online versions of this – a cadre of excellent people people will forma coherent network – from that a new institution emerges.

          For the student – why be taught by a mediocre teacher when you can find a stellar one? Why pay all the costs to support a mediocre institution?

          1. bon

            Rob, it’s true…there are lots of reasons of choice and networking to recommend MOOCs of diff shapes and sizes – i’m more wary than you of the institutions that may emerge. Padua’s a great example…once upon a time, this individualized, reputational model dominated whole swaths of what became the European university…and so the trajectory of it saving us from same? i dunno.

  3. Audrey Watters

    This is a great response to my response to Thrun’s resignation — one that made me realize I get no notification when I get comments on my Inside Higher Ed posts! Ouch!

    I like very much what you say here about rethinking branding as a formal mark granted from an institution to an informal one determined by and achieved by the learner. I do think that’s what MOOCs offer.

    But I’m still not convinced that’s what Thrun is doing here. I think he is relying on the older definition of brand — which you are right, is one he has vested in him through employment by Stanford and by Google. I think he’s the accretion of all these brands — of the university, the tech company, and the (hype of his) AI class (one that, incidentally, a lot of learners said wasn’t as “good” as the others — that’s a whole different story) — to launch a new, for-profit business.

    Plus he *is* offering certification of sorts (branding?) — or at least a signed letter of completion — for those who successfully complete the Udacity courses. Perhaps it’s wrong to just focus on that “successful completion of the course” aspect — after all, that is part of this older model too. But as a new company, I think that’s what he’s going to be selling — maybe not to learners, but definitely to the tech companies that are going to want to know which students have been endorsed by brand Thrun.

    1. bon

      Audrey, do you have an editor at IHE? i write for UVenus, hosted there, but our primary (and lovely) editor gets the comment notifications. ;)

      i agree with you that MOOCs in the smaller-scale Stephen & George model have tended to be more about something determined and achieved by the learner. but…they didn’t start quite so explicitly that way, necessarily: i think there’s always been a set curriculum until #change 11? what Stephen and George and Dave and Alec and David Wiley and Jim Groom and the various crew of people who’ve had their hands deep in this MOOC model have done is explicitly chosen the non-corporate model, to date. but there were studies done in the original CCK08 about rates of completion by credited and non-credited students, so i’m not sure that the MOOCs started off so removed from that traditional concept of a “course.” they’ve had a little more time to work away from it, perhaps.

      what i’m thinking is that even if Thrun does trade on his personal (backed by institutional) brand to offer the KnowLab courses, IF the courses are participatory, people will end up engaging with each other as well and building that peer-accredited brand capital by their interactions.

      not a pure model, this. neither fish nor fowl. but while it’s often seen as just an accidental effect of trying to get traditional forms of accreditation, i think it may be more. maybe. :)

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