Sebastian Thrun Aims to Revolutionize University Education With Udacity

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Udacity gives students videos that they can watch at their own pace and be continually quizzed on.

This past August fellow Singularity Hub writer Aaron Saenz wrote about Udacity, the online university created by Stanford artificial intelligence professor and Google autonomous vehicle leader, Sebastian Thrun. At the time Thrun was gearing up to teach his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course to a class of 200 at Stanford. But why teach 200 when you can teach 1,000…or 160,000? With Udacity, Thrun and fellow AI giant Peter Norvig created an online version of the course, and anyone that wanted to enroll could – for free. The homework assignments and exams would be the same as the ones given to the Stanford students, and they would be graded in the same way so online enrollees could see how they stacked up to some of the brightest students in the world. It was to be a grand experiment in education.

Now, the semester’s over. The exams have been taken, the homework’s been turned in, computers logged off and pencils set down. How’d it all turn out? Thrun spoke recently at the Digital Life Design conference about he and Norvig’s experience. As you’ll see, his students weren’t the only ones with much to learn.

Online, the course went viral. Over 100,000 people enrolled in the initial weeks. By the time the lessons began Thrun and Norvig were instructors for a class size of 160,000. With students all over the world, they enlisted the help of some 2,000 volunteer translators to translate the classes into 44 different languages. Discussion groups were set up on social networks like Facebook so students could help each other, forming what Thrun called an “entire counterculture.”

Thrun also proudly pointed out that he was teaching more students than all the students of Stanford.

The lessons themselves were very simple – at least in method if not in content. Material was explained by Thrun and Norvig as they drew on sheets of paper. Kind of like the overhead projector lessons before the days of Powerpoint, except the online students could interact with the drawings. Rather than simply lecturing to the student and asking them to regurgitate the information on exams, the online format allowed for constant quizzing. Students would be asked a question then answer it by clicking or entering values right on the drawings. They wanted the student to actively think, be constantly challenged and given constant feedback.

The flexibility that this format offers is immediately clear. If the student misses a point or doesn’t quite understand, he or she can rewind, watch it again. Get the quiz wrong, just take it again…and again if you have to.

Until you get it right.

Udacity's artificial intelligence course attracted 160,000 people from all over the world.

When the course began, however, it wasn’t like that. Initially Thrun had structured it as he had structured every other course over the past twenty years of teaching. Give the kids really hard material, then it’s sink or swim. But then he received an email from a parent who called his class a “weeder” class, and told him his daughter was dropping out. It was an epiphany for Thrun, compelling him to make a bold claim: “Grades are the failure of the education system.”

Thrun’s sudden dislike of grades is with its all-or-nothing nature. If we get a “C” on an exam we obviously haven’t mastered the material. Yet even if we get a "C", the professor moves on to more advanced material anyway that will likely depend on the previous, unmastered material. After the email,
Thrun completely revamped Udacity to break the mold. If a student is having trouble with a problem they continue to work on it until they get it right. To Thrun, that’s still worth an A+. Imagine that, an entire class of students who can test at an A+ level. He sums up the attitude by paraphrasing a point made by Salman Khan, founder of the online Khan Academy: “When you learn to ride a bicycle, and you fail to learn a bicycle, you don’t stop to learn a bicycle, give the person a ‘D’ and move onto unicycle.”

What will education look like in the future? If other educators buy into the Udacity model it would be a sea change in the approach to education. An email Thrun received from a student in Afghanistan shows just how radically it is already changing.

I spent the last few days under incoming mortar and rocket attacks, then dodging checkpoints under questionable legal status to exfiltrate a war zone to a third world air field until things settled down. I had about an hour of fairly solid internet connectivity to be able to get the assignments done, and still managed a respectable score. This is a typical week here for me.

Okay, it’s time to address the note-taking, 800 ton gorilla in the room. Don’t we always hear that the key to a better education is to make classes smaller? How can two people possibly teach a class of 160,000 students? Obviously Thrun and Norvig didn’t grade the homework and exams by hand. What kinds of pioneering AI professors would they be if they didn’t employ their subject matter to correct it? AI programs shouldered the grading, and even handled question submissions. The multitudinous questions submitted by the students are sifted by a program and the most common ones are plucked out to be addressed. Not only does this make effectively answering questions possible, but it will highlight confusion points where the curriculum could be fine-tuned.

Will online education bring about the end of 'class as usual?'

One might logically question the format, wonder if learning by yourself on a laptop turns education into a lonely and impersonal experience. But anyone who’s watched a movie on a long plane ride knows the blissful isolation of plugging in ear phones and watching the latest action/romance/comedy/family movies. If done thoughtfully, educators can take advantage of the intimacy of just you and your laptop and create an amazingly personal learning experience despite being one of 200,000 enrolled. Here, Udacity seems to have succeeded. With its illustrations literally drawn out for the students, the lessons made one student feel that Thrun and Norvig were “personally tutoring” her. Anyone who’s sat in an auditorium, looking over the heads of 200 hundred other students at the far away professor and Powerpoint projections knows that the impersonal feel of an average university classroom has much room for improvement. Incidentally, two weeks after Thrun’s AI class began at Stanford the class attendance had dwindled down from about 200 to about 30. They preferred him online rather than in person.

Udacity is now offering up two new courses, CS 101: Building a Search Engine and CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car. Together with David Evans, a professor at the University of Virginia, Thrun will teach you how to build a search engine in just seven weeks. The Search Engine course doesn’t require any programming experience. The Robotic Car course is more advanced, but don’t be scared off. Thrun says that familiarity with linear algebra and statistics and programming experience is useful, but none of this is required.

If you have 22 minutes to spare, I think you’ll enjoy Thrun’s talk. If you don’t, just go to 15:45 and listen as the moving student testimonials come in from all over the world. They alone should convince you that Udacity is on to something great. It was made clear that Thrun thinks so, when he shocked the audience by announcing that he was leaving his tenured position at Stanford. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill," he told them. "You can take the blue pill and go back to Stanford…but I’ve taken the red pill and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

[image credits: Udacity and Xbxg32000 via WikiCommons]

image 1 and 2: Udacity
image 3: lecture hall
video: DLDconference

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 9 Responses

  • Joe Nickence January 28, 2012 on 2:38 pm

    Tears welled up in my eyes when I read the “I spent the last few days under incoming mortar and rocket attacks…” statement. Seriously, most of the free world has no idea just what they have access to today. I so have to reign myself in to keep from making a silly political statement about the occupy movement.

    Kudos to Sebastian Thrun and Udacity. Long live the power of the internet!

  • klas January 28, 2012 on 6:22 pm

    Out of the 160000 enrolled, over 23000 graduated:

    “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.”


    A pretty good number, I’d say.

  • Aubree January 29, 2012 on 6:15 am

    Something that was briefly touched on in this article and the video as well as Khan’s speach is that analytics of this type of education has already found that students who stumble in a specific subject or topic, catch back up to the rest of the class near the end. Only in this type of setting is that really possible on a massive scale.

    Add in the ability for other students to assist in mentorship type programs, the ability to have the best and brightest instructors bring their classrooms to the masses (not just average or sub-par teachers), and you will have a revolution and evolution in education on a scale never seen before.

    I love the freemium model, but I am curious how it will be sustainable? A quick search on Stanford cost per credit hour shows $37k per semester. Given the average 15 credit hour semester the cost is between $2-3k/credit hour (this is all minus room/board/etc). So with this example of 200 students paying for a 3 credit hour course, Standford makes arond $600k for this class (wow??). Granted you have all the expensives and benefits of a brick and mortar University. So what if they charged just $1 U.S. for the class? If they reach their goal of 500k students they would be in range of what Standford achieves. But why charge? See below.

    Since you are dealing with large numbers of students, you can gameify these systems such as Khan Academy has already begun to do. Create a tri-level system: meritrious, compassionate, and philanthropic for the students. Those students who are only able to learn the subject can earn meritrious awards/trophies(this could go along with elminating a grading system). Those who have more to give can earn compassion points through mentoring. Finally those that have more financial freedom could donate money to help pay for other student’s $1 tuition. Given these are globally viewed and utilized courses, it offers another great opportunity for people of various regions to interact and help each other through the compassionate and philanthropic aspects of the system.

    It is wonderful to see this ideal spreading. Education is the key to the future.

  • upster January 29, 2012 on 8:03 pm

    I let the police do their job.. and most of the time they figure out fact from fiction

    • PeterCao upster January 30, 2012 on 4:45 am

      While police doing their job, victims have right to challenge to push the case to be clarified.

    • PeterCao upster January 30, 2012 on 4:48 am

      victims have right to challenge to push the case to be clarified to the public and have those anti-humanity criminals concurred at authorities. The case has been going on for many years, it’s time to ask why

    • PeterCao upster January 30, 2012 on 8:00 am

      It is true police did a great job in this case. I bet police wouldn’t say my public challenge is coming out of fiction either. We are all fighting against anti-humanity crimes. Now I challenge those who involved into these crimes to clarify their roles in these crimes. The problem is and the point is, they dare not deny them to the public

  • Fella Good November 21, 2012 on 10:50 am

    Unfortunately, Thrun is mostly taking credit for work done by others. Take the online courses of Udacity. In Germany, Thrun’s native country, prof. Loviscach started online university lectures back in 2009, and got millions of clicks long before Thrun jumped on the train 3 years later. The pioneering and award-winning prof. Vornberger published his popular videos already in 2002, even before the Khan Academy, currently the most visible mass education outfit. (Germany has a long tradition of distance teaching – Univ. Hagen with over 80,000 remote students has specialized on this for decades.) Even at Stanford, Thrun was not the first. His colleague prof. Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, got hundreds of thousands of viewers for his youtube machine learning course, long before Thrun followed suit and put his own lecture online. Or take self-driving cars. When talking to non-experts, Thrun encourages the impression that he “pioneered” the field. Which is ridiculous. In his native country, prof. Dickmanns already had fully autonomous, fast, self-driving cars (160km/h) in traffic in 1995, long before anybody else, and 10 years before Thrun’s team joined the fray by participating in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge for self-driving cars. And the DARPA objectives were not that hard to achieve, as quite a few teams were able to reach the goal. One of them was a financial services company that had never dabbled in robotics before. Or take Google Glass. No wonder that prof. Babak Parviz, its creator, got miffed when Thrun started taking credit for that as well. More examples from Academia could be listed. If there is one recurring theme in Thrun’s carreer, it’s his (more or less subtle) attempts at festooning himself with achievements of others.

  • Frank Whittemore August 19, 2013 on 6:17 am

    Sebastian Thrun’s involvement in online education marches on…

    Read this New York Times update on the subject –