The Great Unbundling of the University

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The bundle of knowledge and certification that have long-defined higher education is coming apart, but what happens now?


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Felix Salmon tells the story of how Sebastian Thrum was so overwhelmed by the success of his online Introduction at Artificial Intelligence course -- 160,000 students enrolled! -- that he decided to quit teaching at Stanford and start his own online university, where he'll begin by teaching the people who sign up how to build a search engine.

Well, how cool is this?

There are about a thousand things I could say about this development, but let's boil it down to the essentials. For a long time now, universities have flourished by offering a bundled package of knowledge and credentialing. People attended university in order to learn stuff that they couldn't learn elsewhere -- because the experts weren't elsewhere -- and to be certified by those experts as having actually learned said stuff. The bundle has been a culturally powerful one.

But now: unbundling. Clearly, many universities have come, or are coming, to the conclusion that their primary product is the credentialing, and that they can give knowledge away either as a public service or as brand consolidation (choose your interpretation according to your level of cynicism). Those 160,000 students may have learned a great deal about artificial intelligence, and the successful ones received a "statement of accomplishment ... sent via e-mail and signed by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig." But in announcing the course the instructors were careful to note that the "statement of accomplishment ... will not be issued by Stanford University."

The big question for universities going forward is this: Can control of credentialing last for long without control of knowledge? If a great many people learn from Sebastian Thrun and Udacity how to create a search engine, and if some of those are very good search engines, might not the most successful students simply point to their work as a sufficient indicator of their coding chops? Who needs a credential when they can use a simple URL to show potential employers not just what they're capable of but what they have already achieved?

Of course, there have always been autodidacts, especially in the technical realms. But what happens if universities come to see it as part of their mission not just to benefit from the next Bill Gates or Steve Wozniak but actually to produce him -- or her -- without having any formal relationship to that person at all? This could get dicey. At least in some disciplines -- though surely not in all -- even the great universities of the world could soon find themselves with nothing valuable to sell.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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