Required - Written by Wired Academic on Tuesday, January 24, 2012 13:56 - 1 Comment
Open-Source A.I. Prof. Sebastian Thrun Leaves Stanford, Launches Startup “Udacity”
Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun is giving up his job at Stanford to start Udacity – an online educational venture. The first two free courses from that site are “Building a Search Engine” and “Programming a Robotic Car.” His departure from Stanford, however, indicates a serious clash between Thurn and his rogue cohorts and the administration at Stanford.
Thrun explained on his homepage (which appears to be closed by Stanford University now):
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.
Over the past six months, Thrun has spent roughly $200,000 of his own money and lined up venture capital to create Udacity, a new online institution of higher learning independent of Stanford. “We are committed to free online education for everybody.”
Udacity is announcing two new classes on Monday. One will teach students to build their own search engine and the other how to program a self-driving car. Eventually, the founders hope to offer a full slate of classes in computer science.
He noted that no Stanford student had a perfect score in his course. But 248 online students scored 100% by completing assignments and exam questions without a single wrong answer. Sue Gee writes in i-programmer:
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 town 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.
She writes that it is depressing when Thrun concludes: “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.”
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. 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.
What do readers of WiredAcademic think? Does Thrun’s departure from Stanford threaten the potential of his courses? Will he have fewer students and impact by being divorced from a notable American tech institution like Carnegie Mellon or Stanford? Will he and other rogue online instructors come crawling back to the educational brands that helped spawn them… and give them an initial platform and prestige? Will Stanford and other schools aim to block professors from doing these kinds of projects in the future to prevent losing their star talents?
Here is the TedTalk where Dr. Thrun explains his Driverless car idea…
And here is a video of Thurn and colleague on building a better search engine:
Clearly, Thrun and his renegade colleagues at Stanford are demonstrating more momentum for online learning. But his departure and apparent clash with Stanford is somewhat troubling. For all the fanfare over the course, Thrun’s actions are not necessarily encouraging to other institutions as much as they are a warning sign of clashes over management and fears of insurrection. We wish him all the best with Udacity. But we also hope that Stanford and other schools find an enlightened middle ground to let professor’s experiment with these kinds of courses while serving the Stanford community as well as the broader community.
For decades, technology has promised to remake education — and it may finally be about to deliver. Apple’s moving into the textbook market, startups and nonprofits are re-imaging what K-12 education could look like, and now some in Silicon Valley are eager for technology and the Internet to transform education’s more elite institutions.
Thrun’s colleague Andrew Ng taught a free, online machine learning class that ultimately attracted more than 100,000 students. When I ask Ng how Stanford’s administration reacted to their proposition, he’s silent for a second. “Oh boy,” he says, “I think there was a strong sense that we were all suddenly in a brave new world.”
Ng says there were long conversations about whether or not to give online students a certificate bearing the university’s name. But Stanford balked and ultimately the school settled on giving students a letter of accomplishment from the professors that did not mention the university’s name.
“We are still having conversations about that,” says James Plummer, dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering. “I think it will actually be a long time — maybe never — when actual Stanford degrees would be given for fully online work by anyone who wishes to register for the courses.”
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