Credits, Credentials, and Collective Consciousness
By Kevin Carey
As was reported yesterday, well-known Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun are currently teaching an online course in Artificial Intelligence that is available, for free, to anyone in the world. Unlike the previous generation of open courses, which were limited to lecture videos and syllabi, students taking this course can submit homework and take quizzes and tests for grades. When the midterm was administered last month, 175 Stanford students sat for the exam in Palo Alto, while 23,000 non-Stanford students took the same test in locations around the world, with “many scoring on par with” the Stanford students. “Those who also complete the final exam this month will get a letter signed by Thrun, along with their cumulative grade and class rank.” They won’t, however, receive official Stanford college credit.
The higher-education system is currently set up so that a limited number of mostly long-established colleges and universities have an exclusive franchise on the ability to mint academic currency (credit) that can be redeemed for valuable credentials. The tens of billions of dollars currently made available by the government to subsidize higher education can only be spent at those institutions and only for credit-bearing courses. If you walk up to an employer or graduate school with a diploma or official note (transcript) certifying your credit accumulation, it gets treated like currency. Not quite as good as specie issued by the U.S. Treasury (colleges prefer you buy your credits from them, not someone else), but the underlying assumption is that your credits are probably good, particularly if they come from a regionally accredited institution.