Sebastian Thrun Resigns from Stanford to Launch Udacity
Written by Sue Gee
Monday, 23 January 2012
Professor Sebastian Thrun has given up teaching face-to-face at Stanford position and instead intends to create free courses for Udacity, a new online education venture. Udacity's first two free courses are Building a Search Engine and Programming a Robotic Car.
Attendees at this year's DLD (Digital Life,Design) , Conference being held in Munich, Germany and livestreamed around the world, were probably expecting to hear Sebastian Thrun say something of Google's Driverless Car project, but that was only covered in the session introduction. (See video below for the full presentation.)
Instead Thrun's talk, University 2.0, was devoted to the idea of online education, in particular the experiences and consequences of delivering the Online AI class.
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.
Speaking at DLD12, Thrun gave other interesting contrasts between the real-world class and the online one: there were more online students from the small country of Lithuania there on all the courses at Stanford combined and while no Standford student had a perfect score on the course, 248 online students scored 100% - i.e completed the assignments and exam question without a single wrong answer.
Something that I don't think he should be as proud about is the fact that Stanford students abandoned the face-to-face classes for the online version. Instead of teaching the usual 200 students the class size dropped to 30 with the students feeling that the virtual class was better taught and "more intimate".
I can understand fully why Thrun was motivated by the experiences of students who successfully completed the course from war-torn Afghanistan or while coping with domestic turmoil as a single mother. And why he was pleased to discover that 10% (a comparatively very high proportion) of the students were women, making special mention to the Facebook support group, CompScisters, formed by some of them.
But is perhaps depressing that his reaction is to conclude:
Now that I saw the true power of education, there is no turning back. It's like a drug. I won't be able to teach 200 students again, in a conventional classroom setting.
The positive consequence is that Thrun has found a backer with the resources to enable him to offer more free online classes. The Udacity website is already open for signups and the first two classe are due to start next month.
CS101: Building a Search Engine is to be taught by Dave Evans, Professor at the University of Virginia and Sebastian Thrun, requires no previous experience and aims to teach not only "enough about computer science that you can build a web search engine like Google or Yahoo" in just seven weeks.
CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car will be taught by Sebastiam Thrun and does require knowledge of programming and ideally of probability and linear algebra. All programming will be in Python.
Thrun is hoping for tens of thousands of students to sign up - and given that CS 373 is a natural successor to the Stanford AI class perhaps this can be achieved. (Update: the number of signups within two weeks of Udacity's launch was 40,000 and rising rapidly.)
However, how much of the AI class appeal was due to the Stanford University name and reputation?
Will a certificate of course completion from Udacity have a similar attraction?
While there is value in education for its own sake there is also a perceived value which comes from the association and validation by a respected institution. By leaving Standford behind and forming Udacity the problem that now presents itself is to provide Udacity with the same authority as a Stanford. For now, Udacity is just one of a number of sites and organizations offering online courses, for free or for a fee.
As one of the huge number of students who took the online AI course, the fact that it was the "Stanford AI" course counted for something. Would I have been as happy saying to colleagues and friends - I'm taking the Udacity AI course?