Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Sebastian Thrun Will Change Education

John Hawks is a big fan of online education. He posted a link to a Wall Street Journal article about online education [Online education and Silicon Valley]. The article, Sebastian Thrun: What's Next for Silicon Valley?, is mostly about a Stanford professor and Google employee, Sebastian Thrun.
The entrance to his building is littered with the gaudy red, blue, yellow and green bicycles that Googlers tool around on. I'm at the secret headquarters of the not-so-secret Google X, where the way-out-there projects of the search giant turn into reality. The gregarious play master, Sebastian Thrun, leads us into a well-worn conference room. The chairs are a shade of green not found in nature and the disrupting clang and cheers from a rousing foosball game waft in through the door. Mr. Thrun, 45 and slight in stature, is sporting a gray T-shirt of a local start-up and speaks softly with German-English diction.
Thrun and his Google colleague, Peter Norvig, taught an online course on artificial intelligence that attracted a huge number of students. Apparently there were 23,000 students who completed the course. That's amazing. But there's more ...
Mr. Thrun's cost was basically $1 per student per class. That's on the order of 1,000 times less per pupil than for a K-12 or a college education—way more than the rule of thumb in Silicon Valley that you need a 10 times cost advantage to drive change.

So Mr. Thrun set up a company, Udacity, that joins many other companies attacking the problem of how to deliver the optimal online education. "What I see is democratizing education will change everything," he says. "I have an unbelievable passion about this. We will reach students that have never been reached. I can give my love of learning to other people. I've stumbled into the most amazing Wonderland. I've taken the red pill and seen how deep Wonderland is."
How in the world do you pay attention to 23,000 students and give them a grade that reflects what they learned for only $23,000? The only way you could do that is to have all assignments and tests evaluated electronically and that's no way to teach properly. (You also need very cheap servers, internet access, and software and Thrun and Norvig have to work for free.)

Udacity is a for-profit company. How will it make money? [Ex-Stanford Teacher’s New Startup Brings University-Level Education To All].
Classes are currently focused on computer science since that’s what the team already knows how to teach. Examples include: Building a Search Engine and Programming a Robotic Car. As one of the inventors of Google’s self-driving car, Sebastian is perfectly suited to teach a class on how to program one. Udacity plans to expand to other subjects with the goal of building a full university online.

All classes are currently free, and the goal is to keep it that way. When asked how it will make money, Sebastian pointed out that recruiting good technical talent is something that companies pay for. Udacity knows who the best students are and could pass them along to companies looking for new hires.
Somehow I doubt that Udacity will be offering courses in philosophy, French, or art history. I don't even think they'll be teaching biochemistry since very few of our undergraduates move directly from a Bachelor's degree to jobs in biotech or pharmaceutical companies.

Sebastian Thrun thinks he's going to "democratize" education but, if he succeeds, what he's really going to do is dumb down and cheapen education. The only thing in his favor is the fact that today's universities are doing the same thing so creating online courses is probably no worse that what students are currently getting in the classroom. If someone can offer the same quality of "education" for much less money then what's the point of attending classes?



7 comments :

  1. even if udacity's plans are not as good as traditional education, given the present cost of education (at least in the states) and the possibility of romneyworld, where opportunity means 'as much education as you can afford',it is still a very worthwhile venture and if it works, could give at least some higher education to people who would otherwise get little or none. it might even teach them not to write run-on sentences.

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    1. ... it is still a very worthwhile venture ...

      Would you trust someone who got an "A" in an online course with unproctored exams and problem sets?

      Delete
  2. Sebastian Thrun thinks he's going to "democratize" education but, if he succeeds, what he's really going to do is dumb down and cheapen education. The only thing in his favor is the fact that today's universities are doing the same thing so creating online courses is probably no worse that what students are currently getting in the classroom. If someone can offer the same quality of "education" for much less money then what's the point of attending classes?

    I think democratization of education needs to happen at the lower levels first- online education is only going to be as accessible as computer technology is- I personally am excited about such a possibility.

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  3. I agree with clem - this is clearly better than nothing. It provides specialised career training for large numbers of students, who would otherwise either be getting _no_ education, or wasting their time learning nothing at low-quality traditional institutions (because the majority of students attending traditional institutions are not motivated to take charge of their own education). Thrun does point out that for those lucky enough to get into strong institutions, that should be their first option.

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    Replies
    1. ... this is clearly better than nothing. It provides specialised career training ...

      Some of us think that "career training" should be the job of vocational schools or apprenticeships, not universities.

      Delete
  4. Somehow I doubt that Udacity will be offering courses in philosophy, French, or art history.

    No matter how well they do it, this will remain the problem. Even worse in our area, just think of training a biologist without field and lab courses.

    That said, things like this are a great idea if we see it not so much as vocational training but as science communication and crowdsourcing. There are probably many people who would be interested in learning some things that historically they could never have done because it was only taught in university lectures. I am thinking of science-interested laypeople, perhaps somebody interested in learning plant morphology and identification for a hobby, perhaps a retiree who wants to broaden their horizon now they have time...

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  5. I'm hoping to implement the innovations I describe in my new PLOS Biology Perspectives in an open-access online course called 'Useful Genetics'. The goal won't be to produce qualified geneticists, but to help ordinary people understand the genetics that affects their lives.

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