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Is Reputation the Only Way to Assure Quality?

Udacity is the new startup co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, who taught the famous free Stanford course on artificial intelligence that enrolled 160,000 students, and David Stavens. Udacity plans to develop and offer free online courses, and has launched with $5 million in venture capital. How do you make money giving something away? Apparently they don’t know and at this point aren’t really concerned. If they can enroll several hundred thousand students – something that really can’t be ruled out given their track record and resources – there are lots of ways to make money, including by matching employers to successful completers of their courses.

But I hear you asking: “Thrun’s first class – the one that got all the publicity – was equivalent to a Stanford course, and at that time he was a tenured full professor. Why would anyone sign up for a course from a new startup with a funny name, and why would employers believe the course was of high quality?”

Staven’s answer is in this statement: “At top universities, the rigor of the classes is guaranteed almost entirely by the faculty teaching them. Since Udacity has distinguished faculty who also teach at top universities or have impressive records in industry, we feel the classes are comparable. The rigor of classes at most universities is guaranteed by the faculty, not by some process within the university. As long as Udacity continues to attract outstanding teachers, we can be comparable to great universities.”

This is a stunning statement. Do we really know so little about what quality education is and how to recognize it in students? I suspect most people would find Staven’s statement logical and even obvious, but I find its implications disturbing. To offer high quality educational opportunities to all who need them, there must be a better way to assure the quality of learning.

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