Udacity: Reinventing Education

Thrun says he can no longer teach at Stanford University. He says he was presented with the red pill and the blue pill. “You can take the blue pill and go back to your lecture of 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill and seen wonderland.”

Sebastian Thrun

High on our list of role models for our grandchildren are Paul Romer and Sebastian Thrun. One of the most-coveted prizes for a professor is tenure at Stanford University. Because they are so committed to their respective social ventures, both Romer and Thrun resigned their Stanford tenure. [see end-note correction]

We have been writing about Paul Romer’s Charter Cities and his New Growth Theory for some time. Meanwhile we have been following Sebastian Thrun mainly in the context of the Google and Stanford self-driving-car programs.

This post is about innovation in education. Background: last August we posted a brief note on Stanford’s free Introduction to Artificial Intelligence Course offering. That announcement was very exciting – but it wasn’t practical to for us to “attend” the course while touring Europe. Well, it turned out that Dr. Thrun and co-professor Peter Norvig got a lot more out of that online course than they anticipated. With the staggering online signup of 160,000 students around the world, the famous professors had to work nearly to exhaustion to develop new approaches that would be effective at such a scale.

At the 2012 Digital Life Design Conference, Sebastian describes his learning experience teaching the course, Closing his presentation Dr. Thrun announces that he is resigning his Stanford tenure so that he can devote his full energies to the new education startup Udacity cofounded by Sebastian and Prof. David Evans.

We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.

We’re hiring: We are a rapidly growing company located in Palo Alto, California looking for great people to join our team. We’re looking for a wide variety of backgrounds – the only thing in common is a passion for improving education.

The Udacity online course offerings are free to world. To my delight, one of the first courses is CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car, which will be taught by Dr. Thrun himself, starting February 20, 2012. And you can audit their courses, so sign up now!

If you would like to share our excitement about these education innovations, I suggest the following sequence of references:

University 2.0 Sebastian Thrun: this is prof. Thrun’s 2012 Digital Life Design presentation (you may wish to skip the first 5 minutes of introduction). In his concluding remarks Sebastian says “I can’t teach at Stanford again” as he explains that he is abandoning his tenure to devote full attention to Udacity.com.

Reinventing Education with Khan Academy and Artificial Intelligence Class: this is a 45 minute recording of the December Google+ Hangout led by Khan Academy founder Sal Khan and Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. The Google+ Hangout was one of what Norvig/Thrun called their “office hours” supporting the Stanford AI Course. This segment of “office hours” is initially attended by invited groups of students from other prestigious computer science schools.

Sal Kahn at TED 2011: Salman Kahn was perhaps the prime mover in online education at scale. See our earlier post Khan Academy is getting recognition…. Certainly Thrun and Norvig benefited from Kahn’s ground-breaking experience (and I’ll freely speculate that they consulted heavily with Sal as they developed the AI Course).

Kahn Academy: 2,800 free video learning tools — enjoy! Now that Bill Gates and the Google Foundation are providing additional financial backing, Sal Kahn and his development team are innovating at a blistering pace.

The Stanford AI Course website: while the 2011 course is closed, you are invited to audit the course at their YouTube channel.

An excellent briefing on the course by Stanford AI Lab professor Daphne Koller (originally titled at NYTimes Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education).

The Udacity (formerly Know Labs) website.

For more please explore the Seekerblog/Education category.

Update 2/4/12: very interesting. Researching Sebastian Thrun and Udacity I noted that Sebastian has posted on his personal homepage a correction on his Stanford tenure resignation. My introduction at the beginning of this post isn’t accurate. Here are his words:

There is a misrepresentation about my tenure situation that I’d like to correct. I did on my own volition resign from my full tenured position, effective April 1, 2011. However, this was primarily to continue my employment with Google, and it predates my online classes. Stanford has generously appointed me as a research professor without tenure, which means I remain a voting member of the Academic Council. I continue to advise students and help the department with administrative issues. And in all clarity: Stanford is an amazing place!!! I love Stanford.

That said, here is the exciting part of Sebastian’s Welcome! page:

One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life is to teach a class to 160,000 students. In the Fall of 2011, Peter Norvig and I decided to offer our class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to the world online, free of charge. We spent endless nights recording ourselves on video, and interacting with tens of thousands of students. Volunteer students translated some of our classes into over 40 languages; and in the end we graduated over 23,000 students from 190 countries. In fact, Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined. This one class had more educational impact than my entire career. Just watch this video.