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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
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Posted: Dec 5, 2013 5:41 PM
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From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday,
November 8, 2013, p. A2,4. See
With Open Platform,
Stanford Seeks to
Reclaim MOOC Brand

By Steve Kolowich

Palo Alto, Calif.

The offices where two
have created an
online-education empire
are easy to overlook,
tucked away in a
business center here
behind an Indian
restaurant and a
sandwich shop. That's
where Coursera
aggregates courses from
top-tier institutions
and beams them free to
millions of students around the world.

But drive northwest for
a few miles on the same
road El Camino Real,
Silicon Valley's main
thoroughfare and
Stanford University is
impossible to miss. The
institution's arched,
buildings are among
higher education's most
recognizable icons, just
as Stanford's
brand is among the most
prestigious in world.

In the MOOC marketplace,
however, Coursera's
brand is by far the
better known. Ask anyone
about providers of
massive open online
courses, and Coursera's
name comes up, along
with that of
Udacity, another local
company with strong
Stanford ties, long
before the university's
even though
Coursera is only two
years old, and some of
the courses it offers
are taught by Stanford

Now Stanford is looking
to reclaim some
leadership in the MOOC
movement from the
companies down the
street. For some of its
offerings it has started
using Open edX, the
open-source platform
developed by edX, an
East Coast nonprofit
provider of MOOCs. And
Stanford is
marshaling its resources
and brainpower to
improve its own online

In doing so, the
university is putting
its weight behind an
open-source alternative
that could help
others develop MOOCs
independently of
proprietary companies.

Why? "There are people
who are uncomfortable
for a range of reasons,"
says Jane Manning,
director of platforms
for Stanford Online, the
university's new
online-learning arm.
"They've seen what
happened on the research
side of the house with
the academic publishers,
where academic
publishers ended up
having a lot of pricing

Playing Catch-Up

Stanford is the
wellspring for Silicon
Valley in general and
Coursera in particular.
The company's
founders, Daphne Koller
and Andrew Ng, were
professors at the
university when they
experimenting with the
streaming tutorials and
auto-grading tools that
became the basis for
Coursera's platform.

Around the same time, in
2011, their colleagues
Peter Norvig and
Sebastian Thrun were
building an online
classroom that could
"seat" 160,000 learners
more than 300 times the
capacity of Stanford's
largest lecture hall.
Mr. Thrun later founded
Udacity, another
company, and it, too,
set up shop near the

The rapid growth of the
MOOC companies, both in
student volume and in
the public imagination,
has proved that you
don't need stately
buildings and seductive
landscaping to become a
for students seeking
elite higher education.
Coursera's offices may
be unremarkable, but its
portal is wildly popular
not least because of
the big-name
universities that have
decided to offer
MOOCs on the company's
platform rather than
trying to build their

With its online
trailblazers having left
the faculty ranks to
become entrepreneurs,
Stanford is now
playing catch-up. The
Office of the Vice
Provost for Online
Learning was created in
summer 2012
by John Hennessey,
Stanford's president, at
the height of what The
New York Times later
"the year of the MOOC."
Mr. Hennessey appointed
John Mitchell, a
professor, to
lead the office.

It now counts platform
engineers, course
designers, data
researchers, and media
producers among its 25
team members. It also
oversees a research arm
called the Lytics Lab a
collective of doctoral
students and postdocs
who analyze the enormous
amounts of data
generated by Stanford's

Stanford's investment in
Open edX is not just
about MOOCs; the
university is also using
platform for the online
components of 33 courses
on campus this fall. But
where massive courses
are concerned, the
university still lags
behind Coursera, even
among its own
professors. Stanford
only four MOOCs being
taught on its version of
the Open edX platform
this fall, next to 10 on

And although Stanford's
non-Coursera MOOCs have
each drawn tens of
thousands of registrants -
32,000 in "Writing in
the Sciences," 21,000 in
"Statistics in
Medicine," 41,000 in
"How to Learn
Math" the university has
relied on the mailing
lists for courses it has
offered through Coursera
recruiting, says Ms. Manning.

In fact, she says, the
move to edX's
open-source platform
from Class2Go, an
earlier platform
developed by Stanford,
was motivated in part by
the university's need to
hitch its wagon to a
recognizable brand to
compete with Coursera's

"Really," says Ms.
Manning, "most Stanford
faculty wanted to use a
platform that they read
about in The New York

A 'Branding Issue'

On this autumn morning,
Ms. Manning, an
energetic woman who
oversees Stanford's
version of
Open edX, is polishing a
presentation she plans
to give the next morning
at SRI International, a
nearby research
institute. Her slides
outline the pros and
cons of contracting with
for-profit MOOC

In the "pro" column: The
venture capitalists pay
for the web hosting.
Coursera's course
which includes MOOCs
from dozens of
institutions, is a great
place for a university
to pull in virtual
foot traffic. Companies
are nimble and adept at
improving their products
on the fly.

"But there are risks,"
says Ms. Manning, now in
rehearsal mode. "First
of all, there is this
issue that Stanford is
concerned about. If you
see tweets from students
who have just finished a

Stanford course on
Coursera, you get a lot
of, 'Thanks, Coursera,'
'I just finished a
Coursera class.'

"Meanwhile, Stanford has
spent a fortune. We have
this high-end video
studio, we have these
faculty. Stanford is
spending a fortune on
these classes, but
nobody says, 'Thank you,

That might scan as
petty, but Ms. Manning
says the news business
provides a cautionary
tale about what happens
when power shifts "from
content creators to
content aggregators."

Several Stanford
officials draw a
parallel with academic
publishers like
Elsevier, who polish and
package scholarly work
produced at university
expense and then sell it
back to universities an
arrangement that has led
to tension between the
publishing giant and the
scholarly community.

Keeping Them Honest

There is no such tension
between Stanford and
Coursera, officials say.
The two parties still
have a
good relationship, and
some Stanford professors
will continue to teach
MOOCs on the company's

The university also
offers courses through
Novo‚Ed, another company
founded at Stanford,
which provides hosting
and support for
large-scale online
courses. "We're not
allergic to private
providers," says
Mitchell Stevens,
director of digital
research and planning at

Nevertheless, the
university, by
dedicating resources to
improving Open edX, has
cast itself as a
champion of an
open-source alternative
to proprietary MOOC
platforms like Coursera
and Udacity.

In general, open-source
communities share
everything they create
with everyone else,
while private
companies are, usually,
only as generous as they
have to be. In other
areas where companies
gained a foothold in the
university market,
including academic
publishing, open-source
emerged later, usually
after universities began
feeling as if they were
being squeezed by

Stanford wants to make
sure that the MOOC
movement has a
formidable open-source
from the outset.

"Part of our ability to
succeed in education
will depend on having a
great diversity and
variety of
experiments and good,
open discourse about
their successes and
failures," says Mr.
Mitchell, the vice
provost for online

"I think some diversity
around available
platforms, and the
possibility for academic
institutions to
customize platforms, add
to them as they see fit,
instrument them as they
deem appropriate given
our goals in education I
think that's important."

As for Stanford, the
university is working to
build a virtual campus
to match its physical
one and
provide some
competition" Mr.
Mitchell's words to the
professors building
empires down the street.

"If it keeps everyone
honest, and keeps the
business terms favorable
and above board, then
succeeded," said Ms.
Manning. "I don't think
it needs to knock out
other players to
succeed. But if it
changes the landscape so
that the other players
are better actors? Well,
then, aces!"
SIDEBAR PHOTO: John Mitchell is
Stanford's vice provost
for online learning, in
charge of a
team of engineers,
course designers, data
researchers, and others
who are using the
platform Open edX to
build and study MOOCs.
Judith Romero
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Jane Manning,
director of platforms
for Stanford Online, the
university's new
online-learning arm:
"Really, most Stanford
faculty wanted to use a
platform that they read
about in The New York
Times.'" Judith Romero
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu

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