With Open Platform, Stanford Seeks to Reclaim MOOC Brand

Judith Romero

John Mitchell is Stanford's vice provost for online learning, in charge of a team of engineers, course designers, data researchers, and others who are using the open-source platform Open edX to build and study MOOCs.
November 04, 2013

The offices where two professors-turned-entrepreneurs have created an online-education empire are easy to overlook, tucked away in a business center here behind an Indian restaurant and a sandwich shop. That's where Coursera aggregates courses from top-tier institutions and beams them free to millions of students around the world.

But drive northwest for a few miles on the same road—El Camino Real, Silicon Valley's main thoroughfare—and Stanford University is impossible to miss. The institution's arched, Spanish-revival buildings are among higher education's most recognizable icons, just as Stanford's brand is among the most prestigious in world.

In the MOOC marketplace, however, Coursera's brand is by far the better known. Ask anyone about providers of massive open online courses, and Coursera's name comes up, along with that of Udacity, another local company with strong Stanford ties, long before the university's—even though Coursera is only two years old, and some of the courses it offers are taught by Stanford professors.

Now Stanford is looking to reclaim some leadership in the MOOC movement from the private companies down the street. For some of its offerings it has started using Open edX, the open-source platform developed by edX, an East Coast nonprofit provider of MOOCs. And Stanford is marshaling its resources and brainpower to improve its own online infrastructure.

In doing so, the university is putting its weight behind an open-source alternative that could help others develop MOOCs independently of proprietary companies.

Why? "There are people who are uncomfortable for a range of reasons," says Jane Manning, director of platforms for Stanford Online, the university's new online-learning arm. "They've seen what happened on the research side of the house with the academic publishers, where academic publishers ended up having a lot of pricing power."

Playing Catch-Up

Stanford is the wellspring for Silicon Valley in general and Coursera in particular. The company's founders, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, were professors at the university when they started experimenting with the streaming tutorials and auto-grading tools that became the basis for Coursera's platform.

Around the same time, in 2011, their colleagues Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun were building an online classroom that could "seat" 160,000 learners—more than 300 times the capacity of Stanford's largest lecture hall. Mr. Thrun later founded Udacity, another venture-capital-funded MOOC company, and it, too, set up shop near the campus.

The rapid growth of the MOOC companies, both in student volume and in the public imagination, has proved that you don't need stately buildings and seductive landscaping to become a destination for students seeking elite higher education. Coursera's offices may be unremarkable, but its online portal is wildly popular—not least because of the big-name universities that have decided to offer MOOCs on the company's platform rather than trying to build their own.

With its online trailblazers having left the faculty ranks to become entrepreneurs, Stanford is now playing catch-up. The Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning was created in summer 2012 by John Hennessey, Stanford's president, at the height of what The New York Times later dubbed "the year of the MOOC." Mr. Hennessey appointed John Mitchell, a computer-science professor, to lead the office.

It now counts platform engineers, course designers, data researchers, and media producers among its 25 team members. It also oversees a research arm called the Lytics Lab—a collective of doctoral students and postdocs who analyze the enormous amounts of data generated by Stanford's online courses.

Stanford's investment in Open edX is not just about MOOCs; the university is also using the platform for the online components of 33 courses on campus this fall. But where massive courses are concerned, the university still lags behind Coursera, even among its own professors. Stanford lists only four MOOCs being taught on its version of the Open edX platform this fall, next to 10 on Coursera.

And although Stanford's non-Coursera MOOCs have each drawn tens of thousands of registrants—32,000 in "Writing in the Sciences," 21,000 in "Statistics in Medicine," 41,000 in "How to Learn Math"—the university has relied on the mailing lists for courses it has offered through Coursera for recruiting, says Ms. Manning.

In fact, she says, the move to edX's open-source platform from Class2Go, an earlier platform developed by Stanford, was motivated in part by the university's need to hitch its wagon to a more recognizable brand to compete with Coursera's cachet.

"Really," says Ms. Manning, "most Stanford faculty wanted to use a platform that they read about in The New York Times."

A 'Branding Issue'

On this autumn morning, Ms. Manning, an energetic woman who oversees Stanford's version of Open edX, is polishing a presentation she plans to give the next morning at SRI International, a nearby research institute. Her slides outline the pros and cons of contracting with for-profit MOOC providers.

In the "pro" column: The venture capitalists pay for the web hosting. Coursera's course catalog, which includes MOOCs from dozens of institutions, is a great place for a university to pull in virtual foot traffic. Companies are nimble and adept at improving their products on the fly.

"But there are risks," says Ms. Manning, now in rehearsal mode. "First of all, there is this branding issue that Stanford is concerned about. If you see tweets from students who have just finished a Stanford course on Coursera, you get a lot of, 'Thanks, Coursera,' 'I just finished a Coursera class.'

"Meanwhile, Stanford has spent a fortune. We have this high-end video studio, we have these faculty. Stanford is spending a fortune on these classes, but nobody says, 'Thank you, Stanford.'"

That might scan as petty, but Ms. Manning says the news business provides a cautionary tale about what happens when power shifts "from content creators to content aggregators."

Several Stanford officials draw a parallel with academic publishers like Elsevier, who polish and package scholarly work produced at university expense and then sell it back to universities—an arrangement that has led to tension between the publishing giant and the scholarly community.

Keeping Them Honest

There is no such tension between Stanford and Coursera, officials say. The two parties still have a good relationship, and some Stanford professors will continue to teach MOOCs on the company's platform.

The university also offers courses through Novo­Ed, another company founded at Stanford, which provides hosting and support for large-scale online courses. "We're not allergic to private providers," says Mitchell Stevens, director of digital research and planning at Stanford.

Nevertheless, the university, by dedicating resources to improving Open edX, has cast itself as a champion of an open-source alternative to proprietary MOOC platforms like Coursera and Udacity.

In general, open-source communities share everything they create with everyone else, while private companies are, usually, only as generous as they have to be. In other areas where companies have gained a foothold in the university market, including academic publishing, open-source alternatives emerged later, usually after universities began feeling as if they were being squeezed by private industry.

Stanford wants to make sure that the MOOC movement has a formidable open-source presence from the outset.

"Part of our ability to succeed in education will depend on having a great diversity and variety of experiments and good, open discourse about their successes and failures," says Mr. Mitchell, the vice provost for online learning.

"I think some diversity around available platforms, and the possibility for academic institutions to customize platforms, add to them as they see fit, instrument them as they deem appropriate given our goals in education—I think that's important."

As for Stanford, the university is working to build a virtual campus to match its physical one and provide some "good-natured competition"—Mr. Mitchell's words—to the professors building online empires down the street.

"If it keeps everyone honest, and keeps the business terms favorable and above board, then it's succeeded," said Ms. Manning. "I don't think it needs to knock out other players to succeed. But if it changes the landscape so that the other players are better actors? Well, then, aces!"