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Symbiotic Brands: Borrowing the Prestige of Stanford

In The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey's devious character, Verbal Kint, tells detectives, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." In a surreal symbolist poet/neo-noir film mash-up, Kint is paraphrasing Charles Baudelaire.

The brand identities of the for-profit MOOCs (massive open online courses) are similarly surreal mash-ups. The brands of both Udacity and Coursera, like many academic brands, are composed out of affiliations with many other academic brands. What else do you think of when you think of these companies? Above all, you probably think of Stanford University. The founders of both companies were Stanford professors, and, in the usual story, the foundational event was when in 2011 Sebastian Thrun taught an online artificial intelligence course at Stanford that attracted 160,000 students, of whom 23,000 finished the course. In this version of the story, the MOOCs leaped into the world out of the brow of Stanford University, much as the goddess Athena leaped fully formed and armored from the forehead of her father Zeus. Another god had to split Zeus's skull open with an axe to facilitate the birth, but so far the rise of the MOOCs has not been particularly traumatic for Stanford. The spawning of Udacity and Coursera has enhanced Stanford's reputation for both pedagogical and technological innovation.

In addition to being linked to Stanford, the brands of Coursera and Udacity are deeply and inextricably linked to each other. Like conjoined twins, the two brands share a common circulatory system: the same ichor of prestige flows through both of them, and it is not clear that the two brands could be separated without mortally wounding both. The DNA of the brands of Udacity and Coursera also includes the formidable brands of Google, where Sebastian Thrun continues to hold a VP title, and John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins, who co-invested with Scott Sandell of New Enterpise Associates in Coursera. These DNA strands are all intertwined: John Doerr, the most successful venture capitalist on the planet, was an investor in Google, which in turn was founded by two Stanford graduate students. Doerr made a powerful contribution to the branding of Coursera and Udacity when he suggested that Coursera could be a bigger business than Google. Coursera has added further academic prestige to the brand genome of the MOOCs with a total of thirty-three partners, including not only Stanford but also Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Brown University, Wesleyan University, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ohio State, the University of Florida, the University of Melbourne, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, among others. Each of these universities adds its own flavor to the brand. The universities in Israel and Hong Kong and Australia make Coursera look international, and the land-grant state universities help to suggest that Coursera intends to supplement or replace or suck the marrow out of the entire system of higher education and not just elite schools.

Almost all academic brands are mash-ups of this kind. Professor X got her B.S. from University A and did her graduate work at University B. She now holds the C endowed chair at University D, has received fellowships E and F, and has been given grants by Institutes G, H, and I. Her articles have appeared in journals J, K, L, and M, and her book, which was published by the press of University N, received prize O. Professor X's personal brand draws energy from other academic brands as well as from her own unique intellectual contributions. Even the most powerful and ancient academic brands in the world must continually be refreshed with the vital essence of other brands. Harvard University, for example, benefits from a symbiotic relationship with countless other brands, including those of Bill Gates, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Oxford and Cambridge, John Doerr, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Matt Damon, Mark Zuckerberg, Clayton Christensen, George Whitesides, Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, Larry Summers (for better and for worse), the Macarthur Foundation, and the presidency of the United States, to name a few.

Often the most interesting thing about an academic brand is what it conceals or misrepresents. Coursera and Udacity have brands and origin stories that erase a lot of history. One could construct an alternate MOOC history that starts much earlier. One could begin with Stephen Downes and George Siemens and David Wiley in 2007 and 2008, or with the founding of WebCT in 1995 and Blackboard in 1997, or with the launch of UK-based Open University's OpenLearn in 2006, or the launches of Academic Earth in 2009 and of Udemy in 2010. And Fathom launched in 2000 with partners including Columbia University, the London School of Economics, the New York Public Library, Cambridge University Press, the British Library, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Fathom offered a variety of learning objects other than just courses, and some were free. It would not be easy to point to any particular feature of the Stanford MOOCs that represents more than a modest incremental improvement over those predecessors. But this alternate history of the MOOC is less powerful and less dramatic than Athena leaping fully formed from the brow of Zeus. Coursera and Udacity may not have dramatically advanced the state of educational technology, but they have done a fantastic job of brand-building.

Most for-profit colleges, on the other hand, have done a terrible job of brand-building. ITT Technical Institutes and Devry have solid brands in technical education, and Devry made a clever move in adding a former president of Princeton University to its board. Grand Canyon has successfully improved its brand by emphasizing its traditional campus, becoming more selective, and building a strong sports program. American Public Education has always had a solid brand, and with professors including high-ranking soldiers, CIA officers, and at least five astronauts, they have done some successful brand symbiosis. But most of the larger publicly traded for-profit higher education companies need to attach themselves to a lot more prestigious or at least credible brands.

I have recommended to the managements of a number of for-profits that they sponsor more research. They should hire professors away from the schools of education at Stanford and Harvard, and it could not hurt to add a few Nobel laureates and a large number of Pulitzer winners (who are cheaper to support than the Nobel laureates). They should sponsor substantial prizes for high school teachers and administrators. They need to stress their commitment to technological innovation: Apollo Group needs to let more people know that they have invested tens of millions of dollars in building adaptive learning technology. Above all, though, they should highlight their commitment to social justice much more aggressively. If the California State University system and California's community colleges are now turning away over half a million students a year, who will teach the poor?

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