Kolowich, S. (2011) Opencourseware 2.0 Inside Higher Education, December 13

In my retrospective for e-learning in 2011, I complained that merely making content open to the public did not open access to students wanting qualifications from prestigious institutions. In fairness, I should have mentioned the MOOC on artificial intelligence by Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. As Kolowich reports:

students are not only able to view the course materials and tune into recorded lectures for CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence; they are also invited to take in-class quizzes, submit homework assignments, and gather for virtual office hours with the course’s two rock star instructors

This is definitely an excellent step towards greater open-ness, particularly as some other universities will recognize for credit successful completion of the proctored examination at the end of the course. Stanford’s computer science department plans to open up eight more courses next year in a similar way.

There are several interesting points to note about this experiment. First although other universities (such as the University of Freiburg in Germany) will recognise successful completion for credit, Stanford won’t unless the students are already admitted to Stanford. This, despite the fact that many of the external students do as well or better than registered Stanford students: ‘Stanford has been careful to make sure its name is left off the tokens of recognition that Norvig and Thrun plan to send to participants who successfully complete the A.I. course.’

This reminds me of when I was at UBC. We offered a post-graduate certificate in distributed learning to both UBC masters students and also to students from outside the university. When the certificate program was converted into a masters program, the UBC students who had successfully completed the certificate were allowed to carry their credits over to the masters program, but the non-UBC students who had done as well or better were not allowed by the Faculty of Graduate Studies to be admitted to the masters program unless they met the same entrance qualifications for grad school as the UBC students. In other words, it’s more important for elite universities to restrict entrance than to measure the quality of the output.

Another point to note is that Norvig and Thrun were able to manage the assessment only through computer-marked assignments. This works, they claim, for AI, but not for many other academic areas. Assessment is the main challenge to open courses. Institutions are unlikely to accept students assessed by examiners who are not part of or at least approved by the university, and without an army of qualified assessors, it becomes impractical to open up many courses for credit.

Nevertheless, for students already with good academic qualifications, a certificate signed by Norvig and Thrun may be as valuable as a degree, and it is clear that some other good quality institutions are also likely to accept such certificates for credit in a graduate program.

So well done, Norvig and Thrun, but less well done, Stanford University.


  1. Totally agree with your points. Especially the last two paras. I wonder if we’ll reach a position where universities will offer an assessment only service (for a fee one would presume) whereby they are providing accreditation of learning that may have occurred at another university or, indeed, anywhere at all.

    Presumably such a university might provide a course + assessment for a subject or they may just offer the assessment. It would certainly encourage the auto didacts who have precious little to encourage them in the current system.



  2. […] Rather than just repeat what is very eloquently described on their web site I’ll cut to the chase and say that I think this initiative may be a possible game changer in higher education. This is particularly true when viewed in the context of Stanford’s recent highly popular online CS courses and other developments in running open online courses elsewhere. What we are seeing is MIT and Stanford starting to offer open online courses that anyone may enrol in, anywhere in the world. In the case of MIT this is a university initiative whilst in the case of Stanford it is Stanford Professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. Interestingly, the mistake Stanford are making by not institutionalising the work of their academics has already been noted by Tony Bates in a recent blog post. […]


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