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Felix Salmon on Sebastian Thrun and Udacity

Felix Salmon:

Udacity’s model: [T]hree very good questions about Sebastian Thrun’s new online university, Udacity, which I wrote about last week. I spoke to Thrun yesterday, so I took the opportunity to clear them up.

Reich begins:

  1. Why did Thrun need to quit Stanford? Why not pursue the project under the umbrella of Stanford, with its enormous and global reputation? Indeed, hadn’t he already carried out a demonstration proof of the concept with his Artificial Intelligence class at Stanford? Why not just continue with that in expanded form at Stanford?

As Thrun says on his homepage, he quit Stanford on April 1, 2011 — before offering the free class in artificial intelligence — “primarily to continue my employment with Google”…. This helps to answer another of Reich’s questions. “If Thrun developed [the AI] class as a faculty member at Stanford,” he asks, “then doesn’t Stanford have some claim on at least the course content?” The answer, it seems, is that Thrun developed the class after he gave up his position at Stanford. And as a result, the course content belongs not to Stanford but rather to KnowLabs, Thrun’s company…. Leaving Stanford, Thrun told me, “was the only way I could pull this off. The statement that we could let the students take exams and compare themselves to Stanford students, is something I don’t think the university would have approved.”

When NPR interviewed Thrun for a story about Udacity, they also got a none-too-enthusiastic statement from Stanford:

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.”

Stanford, then, has managed to come out of this story smelling reasonably good: it helped give Thrun the launching pad for Udacity, and didn’t visibly complain…. [T]he sign-up rate for Udacity’s new courses seems to be exactly the same as the sign-up rate for the AI class which was co-branded with Stanford: the lack of a Stanford branding doesn’t seem to have hindered Udacity much. And similarly, the incredible success of Khan Academy has taken place without any co-branding with a venerable legacy institution….

Udacity is very much a teaching institution rather than a research institution. “At Stanford, priority is your research career,” says Thrun. “That is counter to teaching 100,000 students, who generate 100,000 emails.” Looked at from a 30,000-foot view, Stanford is the institution being disrupted here, it’s not the institution doing the disrupting. And that also helps explain why Thrun isn’t doing Udacity under the auspices of Google. He says that Udacity does fit quite easily into Google’s mission of making the world’s information available for free, but that at the same time Google doesn’t need a dog in this particular fight. “Having a clean slate is a better way to start,” says Thrun. “The last thing I want is people asking whether Google is disrupting education. Better to ask if Sebastian is trying to disrupt education.” (That said, Thrun’s friend and boss Sergei Brin does feature prominently in the launch video for Udacity’s first course; it’s clear that Udacity has Brin’s strong support. And of course Google is also a big supporter of Khan Academy, having gifted it some $2 million.)…

Reich's second question:

  1. Why is Udacity a for-profit company? Thrun said that Udacity courses would be free to students, and Thrun cited Salman Khan and Khan academy as inspiration and model for what he’s doing. But Khan Academy is non-profit. Stanford University is a non-profit. Thrun says he wants to democratize higher education, offering knowledge to the world for free. How does this mission fit with his for-profit online university?

I asked Thrun about this, too, and he replied by saying that “for profit is not forced to make profit. I needed to get people together really fast, and it’s much easier to do that under the ways of a Silicon Valley company.” Certainly the speed with which Udacity launched, complete with a high-quality staff, is testament to the natural velocity with which things get done in Silicon Valley. Driving the launch was seed funding from Charles River Ventures, while the site’s jobs page proudly offers “Competitive salary, benefits, and Series A stock options” to anybody thinking about working at Udacity…. [O]nline education is young enough that it’s worth trying many different models to see which ones work. Udacity seems to be built on the standard VC model of get scale first, worry about monetizing it later…. “We should try many different things,” says Thrun. “I believe in the educational revolution that Salman started. I believe that education can change the world. So why not try a hundred of those things.”…

A large part of the success of both Khan’s courses and Thrun’s is the way that they’re presented and executed…. Khan, in particular, is a hugely gifted natural educator. And what both of them aspire to doing is to build what Thrun calls “magic” into the way that they teach. Thrun wants to add another element, too — community. His courses have a start date and an end date and deadlines… that makes them inherently social in a way that Khan’s YouTube videos aren’t.

Finally, asks Reich,

  1. What to make of Thrun’s apparent pleasure at the fact that 170 of the 200 Stanford students who had enrolled in the real, not online, version of the Stanford AI class stopped coming to class, preferring the online Thrun to the flesh-and-blood Thrun?

That pleasure, I’m quite sure, is genuine. I think that Khan and Thrun are at the forefront of a new, more personal way of teaching — think of them as having screen-actor skills in a world which has historically rewarded stage-actor skills. When you teach online, you’re teaching in a conversational manner, in a one-on-one space. And it turns out that many students — quite possibly most students — prefer being taught that way…. [T]he incentives for the teacher are so much greater online, if like most teachers you’re driven by the opportunity to impart knowledge to students. “This is the best thing I can do in my life,” says Thrun. “I empowered more students in 2 months than in my entire life before. On that scale, I was off the charts in the last quarter.” And of course Thrun is barely on the charts if you compare him to the number of students that Khan has reached.

What Khan and Thrun and others are creating is a new educational paradigm, which promises not only much greater scalability than anything we’ve had until now, but also higher-quality education. That’s the real lesson of Thrun’s Stanford students taking his class online…. The trick is intimacy, in a way which takes full advantage of the lean-forward nature of computer screens…. [I]t’s a much more immersive and intimate experience. Blow that YouTube video up to full screen, and jump down the rabbit hole. You might just learn something.