By Steve Kolowich
Palo Alto, Calif.
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.
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!”