Will Stanford Join the Digital Learning World?



By 04/23/2012

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Readers interested in digital education should go to the very end of Ken Auletta’s article on Stanford’s president, John Hennessy, in the latest issue of the New Yorker.

On the whole, his piece is lightweight, trying to make a Santa Cruz mountain out of facts known to the ground squirrels swarming the university’s foothills.  (When at the Hoover Institution, located on the Stanford camps, those hills and squirrels are among my favorite companions.)

Auletta worries that Hennessy is too assiduous at harvesting the wealth of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Is science and engineering taking over?  Are the liberal arts about to be abandoned?  Are Stanford students too happy?  Where are the demonstrators? As if those are today’s raging issues in higher education!

Auletta rightly questions Hennessey’s effort to build a new, science-oriented campus in New York, but he then turns around and attacks the president for retracting the proposal when doubled crossed by the New York politicians. The idea of a second campus on the East Coast was always a distraction. It poured a hefty share of Stanford’s wealth into bricks-and-mortar thousands of miles from home. Why not take that same pot of gold—or, more exactly, a handful or two out of that pot—and start building a digital university for the ages?

Apparently, that much better idea is now on the agenda. After Hennessy’s New York real estate deal fell through, Hennessey, always better at thinking outside the box than most of his peers, seems to have come to the realization that digital learning could disrupt even the nation’s greatest universities. Stanford is already offering an online high school diploma to any young person the school admits no matter where they live.  That it is placing tight limits on enrollment only makes sense until its model is fully designed and tested.  But once affluent families begin comparing the strength and quality of a Stanford diploma with those offered by many local high schools, there could be a vast demand for its product.

And it may not be just high school that Stanford could reshape.  Auletta tells us that Hennessy’s “experience in Silicon Valley proves that digital disruption is normal, and even desirable…. Students in an online university could take any course whenever they wanted, and wouldn’t have to waste time bicycling to class.”  Apparently, Stanford’s president is mulling all this over during his sabbatical.

Like a good adventure story, Auletta’s tale gets better and better as it goes along and reads best of all at the very end.

- Paul E. Peterson




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