Stanford Professor Resigns To Launch Higher Ed Site
On Jan. 23, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun announced at the Digital Life Design (DLD) Conference in Munich that he would be leaving his tenure at Stanford University to launch a new web site aimed at offering college courses for free to students around the world.
It's education for the 21st century, and with the creation of Udacity, Thrun's newest endeavor, a college education is expanding from on campus to off campus and all around the globe.
Udacity is an online university powered by educators and engineers that will offer a high-quality education to students for free, connecting "some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world," the site said. Their mission: to change the future of education.
Udacity's first course, CS 101: Building a Search Engine, will be taught by Dave Evans, a professor of computer science at the University of Virginia, and Thrun, who helped create Google's self-driving car. The course is designed to teach students the basics of programming and in the end, they will have the skills necessary to create sites like Google and Yahoo!. The seven-week course opens on Feb. 7, and Thrun hopes to see enrollment numbers reach 500,000.
The site also offers CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car, a follow-up to Thrun's artificial intelligence class. The course will teach students how to program their own algorithms for a self-driving car, just as he did.
Thrun's primary goal, he said, is to make education free to the everyone and help people in the developing world become bigger and stronger. Despite all of the technological changes through the years, Thrun said at the DLD Conference, the university system has been the least innovative in all of society. Udacity is Thrun's attempt to bring the system up to speed.
The professor's departure was the result of the success of Thrun's first online class, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, offered in the fall of last year. The course, offered through the site Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE), saw startling registration numbers, totaling 160,000 with 23,000 actually completing the course. Students had access to lectures by Thrun, quizzes and practice problems that taught them the basics of artificial intelligence. Although students do not receive Stanford credit for taking the course, they still have the opportunity to receive a certificate upon completion, and a Stanford-quality education - minus the difficult admission standards and the $40,000 price tag.
"A place like Stanford offers an amazing education only to a miniscule sliver of the population, and if you look around the world, so many people don't have access to a reasonable education," said Andrew Ng, one of the creators of SEE. "For many of us, we sensed that if we can take some of the high quality contents that a place like Stanford is producing, we can change a lot of people's lives."
As Thrun received favorable responses from students who took the course, he began to think about the impact that an online education can have on the world. At the conference, he recounted an e-mail received from a student in Afghanistan, who described days where he only had an hour to complete assignments, lectures and quizzes, but did so amidst mortar and rocket attacks. More students enrolled for the Artificial Intelligence class in one single small country than attended the whole university, and enrollment in the live version of the class in Palo Alto dwindled from 200 to 30 as popularity of the online course heightened.
The trend of a free online education began with OpenCourseWare, a site created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty in 2002, and continues to expand further with the launch of MITx this spring. MIT announced last year that their new online platform will expand upon the already-popular OpenCourseWare site. MITx, though, will have online discussion boards that foster interaction between students, will feature online labs and self-assessments, and offer certificates for a small fee for students who complete the course. By offering certification, students will have an incentive to see the course through.
"In all walks of life, one of the ways to keep our lives interesting and to advance our careers is to make sure we keep learning new things," Ng, an associate profesor in the computer science department, said.
Since the inception of OpenCourseWare, schools such as Princeton, Yale and University of California, Berkeley have launched sites that offer their classes online, and the popularity of these sites, as well as the popularity of Thrun's own artificial intelligence class acted as a catalyst for his departure from the Palo Alto school.
For the professors, teaching to an audience of more than 100,000 students is inspiring. In order for a professor who teaches a live class of 400 each year students to reach 100,000 students online, he would have to teach for 250 years before reaching the same number of people, Ng said.
Courses through these top-notch schools are taught in a variety of languages and in more than 30 disciplines. For students on the campuses, these online classes give them the opportunity to test out a professor before actually taking the class. And if students don't understand a specific concept, they can go back through the lecture until it clicks. At Stanford, Ng and professor Daphne Koller developed SEE even further for students enrolled in the university. Professors will post lectures ahead of time for students to view so class time is used more effectively. Intead of lecturing in class, students now use their face time with faculty to ask questions about course subject matter, engage in small-group discussions with other classmates or have one-on-one time with the professor.
At the DLD conference, Thrun said that these online classes are designed to help as many students succeed as possible. Udacity joins many other sites available, offering students of any age and at any location a chance to step behind the ivory towers.