Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who taught an online class in Artificial Intelligence (AI) that went viral, announced today he is leaving his tenured professorship at the university to start his own online university, Udacity, where courses will be taught for free to anyone in the world.
In kicking off his new virtual college, Thrun wasted no time with small ideas. His first course offering on building a search engine is described this way: “Learn programming in seven weeks. We’ll teach you enough about computer science that you can build a web search engine like Google or Yahoo!” Given Thrun’s Google pedigree, this is a promise he should be able to handle.
As previously explored in this space, Thrun and his colleague, Peter Norvig, set out to experiment with online learning by offering their top-rated Stanford course on AI to anyone for free. Their aim was to give the rest of the world access to the same instructional quality and content as those taking the traditional brick-and-mortar Stanford course. To remain in the course, online participants had to successfully complete the rigorous weekly homework assignments.
Felix Salmon wrote about this major announcement in a blog post Udacity and the Future of Online Universities from the Digital Life Design (DLD) Conference in Munich. At the conference, Thrun revealed some intriguing facts about his game-changing online learning course:
- there were more students from Lithuania alone in the course than students at the physical Stanford class altogether.
- the physical class at Stanford started with 200 students but shrunk to 30 students because, according to Salmon, “the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.”
- Of all students who took the course, only 248 scored perfect (meaning never missed a homework or exam question). All of them took the course online.
- And according to a DLD press release, one student in Afghanistan described “risking his life” just to reach a hotspot so he could finish his assignment.
It’s unclear why Thrun chose to sever his relationship with Stanford. It’s a risk for Thrun – will as many people sign up for an online case without the world-class Stanford name attached? Was the competition between the online and brick-and-mortar Stanford students a necessary ingredient to the success of the initial AI course?
Maybe we should rethink education. If we can make education free and accessible for the world, we can achieve things we never thought possible.
According to Salmon, Thrun’s transition to online teaching was inspired by the Khan Academy model. The Khan model turns the traditional system on its head through its focus on mastery over grades. Khan Academy students can access lectures and materials as much as they need in order to master content. Thrun admitted that in his years as a traditional professor, the goal in part was to weed out students with hard coursework, mostly designed to make the professor look smart. But, with Udacity, Thrun intends to reach and teach as many students as possible.
Beth T. Sigall
January 23, 2012