Google VP and Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun spoke to a packed CCIS lecture theatre last Friday about Udacity, his online education program that has enrolled hundreds of thousands of students around the world in free university-level courses.
On a mission to democratize education, Udacity has been wildly successful since its launch in January. More than 750,000 students have signed up for 14 courses that range from introductory computing science and statistics to advanced program design and artificial intelligence — all of which are instructed by world-renowned experts and professionals.
Udacity is one of a growing number of organizations, including groups like Khan Academy and Coursera, working to transform education. Known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), these classes are revolutionizing the current model of teaching and challenging the entire structure of higher education, which Thrun believes is inaccessible to too many people.
“Education and higher education today is in a crisis. We all know this. We are not reaching the students that need our help,” he said. “Our cost per student — every student — is about a dollar. And now that classes run all the time, the cost has shrunk down to basically zero cents, which means we can make education — our style of education — a free good. We can make it a basic human right.”
Since the only requirement for a Udacity course is an internet connection, students can easily sign up through udacity.com or through Facebook or Google
Thrun believes people involved in organizations like Udacity can open classrooms up to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people.
Thrun attributes much of Udacity’s success to the particular style of teaching that the internet facilitates, which eliminates the traditional lecture model and instead emphasizes interactivity. In August, Udacity even began to offer open enrolment, allowing students to work at their own paces.
“We didn’t want to lecture. And the reason is, I just don’t think lecturing is the right thing to do,” Thrun stated. “I want to move education (away) from what I consider ... a medieval discipline.”
Udacity lessons typically consist of short videos which can be easily re-watched, and embedded quizzes and exercises which can be re-attempted at the students’ leisure.
“The mantra of Udacity is to really strive for excellence, and really put student exercise front and centre,” Thrun said.
Udacity was founded by Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky shortly after Thrun heard Salman Khan speak at a conference about his work with Khan Academy and the vast number of students he had reached simply through YouTube videos.
“Here I was, a Stanford professor ... typically (speaking) to 200 students, which is large by Stanford standards. So I was a successful professor, realizing there’s this guy who teaches tens, and hundreds, and millions of people. What am I doing?” said Thrun.
Soon after, Thrun launched his own online version of an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence for free, through Stanford, expecting maybe ten thousand students at most.
“It was Friday afternoon. Come Saturday morning, I wake up and the count is already 5,000. By Sunday, 10,000. Monday morning, 40,000,” he said. “In no time, that enrolment grew to 160,000 ... it was frightening.”
“I was completely unprepared,” he said. “I prided myself on being a Stanford professor — it’s an amazing institution ... but through this process I realized that these might be the best students, but they’re not the ones that need my help the most.
“For me, entering this is not just about experimenting with education as a whole, it’s also to help people and to possibly do the biggest thing I can do in my life, which is to empower people.”
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