Anytime, Anywhere, Cheap Brand-Name Professional Development

Perhaps it’s Stanford University’s proximity to Silicon Valley that gives it an innovative bent, or maybe the West Coast Ivy is hoping to capitalize on the experience some faculty have had in recent years opening their classes to a broad audience. Or maybe the school is just trying to avoid the tsunami-like impact of digital era disruption better than record and book stores have.

Stanford certificates carry brand-name appeal

Last week, Stanford announced a fully online, low-cost/high-quality Energy Innovation and Emerging Technologies certification. Courses will be taught by the field’s “preeminent researchers”, will be open to nearly anyone, will have no prerequisites, and the program’s 4 courses will cost a total of $780. Courses are offered more or less within the traditional semester format, but it appears one could complete the certificate in just a few months if the courses were taken simultaneously. This is not a completely new format for Stanford, as the university also offers an online certificate in IT Benchmarking, which can be completed in about 6 months, on average, and costs only $500.

So, here are just a few of the questions I’m pondering as I consider Stanford’s program:

1. How much longer before brand-name university programs replace conferences and local grad courses as regular professional development for educators? This summer, it will cost my school and me about $1,500 combined for me to go to ISTE in San Diego. If, for example, the Harvard School of Ed offered a go-at-my-own-pace-anytime-anywhere certificate program of focused professional development in eLearning for say $700, why would I go to a conference? From such a program I would get a verification of mastery from a widely respected institution. Yes, conferences are great for meeting new people, interacting with experts, and hearing new ideas, but modern online courses are probably just as good as conferences for this. And, yes, good online certificates in eLearning already exist, but the program at George Washington U., for example, costs almost $700 per credit hour.

2. Will we see online certifications cannibalize graduate programs? Masters in education programs are typically either expensive, difficult to attend due to scheduling, or both. And, in my experience, it’s sometimes unclear what the practical value of these programs are to the daily practice of teaching. Would it be better for teachers to instead hold certifications in specific areas like “inquiry-based learning” or “differentiated assessment”? It seems to me that a university could leverage economies of scale to offer such programs, taught by recognized experts, to a wide number of teachers for very low costs.

I’m just scratching the surface here. The nearly weekly news that high-quality programs are going online with dramatically lower barriers for participation than traditional education tells us that the tsunami is closer than most think. Kudos to Stanford for keeping their eyes open. It will be interesting to see if they’ve acted quickly enough.

Photo courtesy of Steven Erat, 


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Mike Gwaltney