A couple of weeks ago, while discussing the announcement of the Harvard / MIT edX initiative, I included a brief recap of what’s been happening over the last six months in the land of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which began as follows:

Throughout the fall 2011 semester, a group of well-known Stanford professors had been running an unorthodox experiment by letting over 100,000 students around the world take their courses, online, for free. Those who did well got a certificate from the professor saying so.

Later that day, I received an email titled “error in your blog” from a person who works in communications for Stanford, which I’m reprinting with permission. The person said:

Students who did well did not receive a certificate. Neither Stanford nor the professors issued a certificate. All students who completed the courses received a letter from the professor saying that they had completed the course. And that’s it.

This is telling. I used the word “certificate” deliberately, because “letter” seemed inadequate. A letter is a vehicle for interpersonal correspondence, e.g. “Dear Mom, I am having fun at camp this summer, please send cookies,” or “Dear Sir, we regret to inform you that your manuscript does not meet our standards for publication.” A certificate is a document describing some kind of important characteristic of the bearer, as attested by the issuer. A college diploma is a kind of certificate, as is a teaching certificate issued by a state licensing board, as were the old-fashioned “letters of introduction” people once used to facilitate business and social interactions. As is, I would argue, the document that students received upon completing the Stanford MOOC in question. Here it is:

Looks like a certificate to me.

This shows the biggest weakness in Stanford’s engagement with the rapidly-developing world of highly-branded MOOCs. By rights, Stanford should own this space. Winning the MOOC space will require a combination of investment capital, branded credibility in the marketplace, deep expertise in academics, and deep expertise in the formation and scaling of hugely popular online enterprises. There’s nowhere in the world with more of that stuff in one place than Stanford and the surrounding Silicon Valley environs.

But unlike Harvard and MIT, Stanford has thus far been unwilling to lend its super-valuable brand name to some kind of certificate of learning. That will make a huge difference over time. People need more than learning; they need evidence of learning. Stanford’s current reflexive “Don’t say certificate!” attitude reflects the deep ambivalence of organizations that look at MOOCs and see both immense opportunities to expand their mission and presence worldwide and huge risks to an exclusivity-driven success model that has served them well for the last century. Harvard and MIT have gotten over it. Stanford should, too.

[Cross-posted at The Quick & the Ed]

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Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.