Massive Courses, Sans Stanford

For students looking to learn skills and land jobs, might the good word of a highly regarded instructor count as much as the imprimatur of a highly regarded institution?

The question arose in the fall, when a handful of professors at Stanford University decided to teach free courses online to tens of thousands of students who were not enrolled at the elite California university. The students would receive no Stanford credit; only a signed letter by the instructor, acting apart from the university.

The pair of part-time Stanford instructors who co-taught the most successful of the open courses, on artificial intelligence, now intend to put the importance of the institutional brand to the test. They are co-founders of a company that will offer two similarly “open” courses beginning in February, this time independently of the Stanford name.

The company, called Know Labs, has funding from Charles River Ventures and aspires to be a for-profit enterprise that offers high-quality college courses on the cheap to tens of thousands of students at a time through an online learning portal called Udacity.

Meanwhile, other members of the Stanford computer science department, several of whom also broadcast open versions of their courses to global audiences in the fall, are also looking to expand and formalize their efforts. This parallel effort, led by professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, has not decided whether to spin off a company or nonprofit organization of their own. But they are considering their options, according to Koller. “There are obviously many options in how to structure this,” says Koller. “We’re exploring different ideas.… Anything’s possible.”


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