Skip to content

Is the organizational model broken? Start a company.

January 26, 2012

Today’s edition of  Stephen Downes’ Online Daily email contains a link to Sebastian Thrun’s “University 2.0” video (27:30), in which he explains that he left his tenured position at Stanford University in order to embark on a “mission to change the future of education“. Thrun is responsible for Stanford’s high profile “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course that attracted 160,000 students from over 190 countries (it’s part of the “Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE)” initiative). Not surprisingly, this large, open, free course also attracted considerable attention from the media, including the New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Thrun quickly realized that he was on to something. So what did he do? He started a company (UDACITY), launched a website, and began offering more courses. The first, “CS 101: Building a Search Engine” is introduced in the video (1:37) embedded below.

(Video uploaded to YouTube by  on Jan 23, 2012)

Not only is open for registrations from students, the company is looking for employees, too. If you act quickly, you can get in on the ground floor of a firm that offers a “competitive salary, benefits, and Series A stock options“. Series A stock options?

Sebastian Thrun has rightfully earned attention and accolades for his impressive accomplishments, educational insights, innovative mindset, and infectious passion. However, the main problem is not the outdated practice of university academics lecturing to small groups of privileged, fee-paying students in campus classrooms (although this is certainly worth critiquing). The foundational problem is that we have developed a way of organizing and rewarding the work that we do (including teaching and learning) that is inefficient, wasteful, and inevitably leads to goal displacement and unintended (usually negative) consequences. We won’t solve the economic crisis by building another private bank, and we won’t solve the education crisis by launching another dot com startup. Rather than pinning our hopes for tranformational change on heroes and their companies, however ethical and well-intentioned they might be, we should work together to develop models and approaches that are based on fundamentally different philosophies and goals. One way we can do this is by participating in open, distributed, inclusive networks of collaborators who understand the power  of collective effort and who recognize the problems associated with the private ownership and control of ideas and organizations. Through this process, we might be able to transform, not just education, but our practices, our structured relationships, and ourselves.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2012 4:46 pm

    These Stanford people aren’t about change or education for the greater good of society, they’re just after the larger market afforded by the internet. It might be cool what they are doing–a sort of factory outlet for the Stanford mother corp. The outlet distributes just slightly out of date course ware that met the Stanford brand criteria not too long ago. It doesn’t dilute the brand because the primo courses are saved for the full tuition paying students. The exclusivity of the campus courses remains intact and the older stuff becomes pure cash flow. How this different from the selling of any other product I can’t tell.

    Soon there will be mini-certificates in de-contextualized learning that look very much like the trail of extension and interest courses anyone into life long learning drags behind them. Learning is a good thing. Profiting from it is even better. Stanford, the home of Day Old Ed.


    • Mark McGuire permalink
      January 27, 2012 10:14 pm

      Hi Scott

      The “factory outlet” is a good comparison. I’d love to read whatever feasibility studies Stanford would have prepared before launching their new initiative. No doubt discussions of brand and reputation enhancement would have figured large. The relationship between the “outlet” and “factory corp.” is a very interesting one, and we can only guess at what their overall strategy might be. Somehow, I doubt that it involves the winding down, or significant transformation, of the mother corp.


  2. January 27, 2012 5:11 pm

    Thanks for this information, Mark. I signed up for the Search Engine course despite knowing next to nothing about programming. I appreciated your contributions to the ccck12 session tonight/morning and look forward to interacting with you during the MOOC.

    • Mark McGuire permalink
      January 27, 2012 10:18 pm

      Hi myour

      You are a brave soul to sign up for a course well outside your comfort zone. Bravo! I have found that at least two of my university colleagues did the Artificial Intelligence course (along with 160,000 others), and I am looking forward to hearing about their experience. It would be great if you reported what you think about the Search Engine course to other MOOCers. Thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: