Sebastian Thrun, who drew 160,000 students to his free, online artificial intelligence course, is quitting Stanford University to create a free online university called Udacity.

There were more students in his course from Lithuania alone than there are students at Stanford altogether, said Thrun in a talk at the DLD Conference in Munich, reports Felix Salmon of Reuters. Of 248 students who earned a perfect score, all were online students.

Thrun was eloquent on the subject of how he realized that he had been running “weeder” classes, designed to be tough and make students fail and make himself, the professor, look good. Going forwards, he said, he wanted to learn from Khan Academy and build courses designed to make as many students as possible succeed — by revisiting classes and tests as many times as necessary until they really master the material.

And I loved as well his story of the physical class at Stanford, which dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.

“I can’t teach at Stanford again,” Thrun said. He hopes to enroll 500,000 students for his first Udacity course on how to build a search engine.

It’s too bad Thrun has to leave Stanford to create Udacity, Salmon writes.

Stanford refused to issue a certificate to the 20,000 online students who finished Thrun’s course and a second open computer course, notes NPR. Instead, online students received a letter from the professor indicating their class rank.

“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.”

By contrast, MIT will offer a credential, for a small fee, to online students who succeed in courses offered by MITx.  “A world-famous university with an unimpeachable reputation” is putting “its brand and credibility behind open-education resources,” writes Kevin Carey.

It’s the great unbundling of the university, writes Alan Jacobs in The Atlantic. Universities used to offer a bundled package of knowledge and credentialing.

People attended university in order to learn stuff that they couldn’t learn elsewhere — because the experts weren’t elsewhere — and to be certified by those experts as having actually learned said stuff. The bundle has been a culturally powerful one.

But now: unbundling. Clearly, many universities have come, or are coming, to the conclusion that their primary product is the credentialing, and that they can give knowledge away either as a public service or as brand consolidation (choose your interpretation according to your level of cynicism).

Can universities continue to control credentialing?

I wrote about digital badges, an attempt to challenge universities’ credentialing monopoly, on the U.S. News site.

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  1. I took that class and the first few sessions were indeed math-heavy “weeders” that probably cut the number of students in half. Still it was fun and I learned a lot. In a hard-to-explain way it was better than an in-person class. You could rewind and go over hard concepts again and again until you got them. Your head wasn’t tied up trying to look smart in class. You didn’t spend any time analyzing the professor’s body language or his demeanor or his attitude towards you. On-line classes like this, however, require you to develop totally different study habits, however. There’s little point in taking notes, except to keep track of where in which video each new concept was (so you could go over it again later). Instead, I would create “cheat sheets” showing the steps of solving a particular problem (both to familiarize myself with the concepts and to use during the homework and tests).

    A revolution is coming, I think. It will start with Higher Ed, but it’ll trickle down.

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    I took the class too. Maybe because I have a degree in Computer Science, I didn’t think it was particularly math-heavy. Students had to be familiar with probability and especially conditional probability, but in today’s Artificial Intelligence world, understanding conditional probability is key to understanding the algorithms. The required math was certainly not gratuitous.

    I’m less sanguine about a revolution in Higher Ed than Rob is. Like Rob, I thought the class was fun and I learned a lot. But I guess that Rob, like me, is motivated, and signed up for the class because he loves to learn. We aren’t the problem.

    Online classes of this type (I signed up for three more, how about you Rob?) are a fantastic way to offer top-quality, state of the art education to bright, motivated students all over the world, many of whom would otherwise not get a chance to be exposed to this cutting-edge material. And that’s great.

    But the majority of American college students are not the kind of motivated students who look forward to the next class, network with each other to make sure they understand everything, and rewatch a video five times to get it. This kind of online education will work considerably less well for them.

  3. It would be really useful if someone would transcribe these videos, to give an alternative way of “viewing” them that would often be more convenient. Maybe someone could print them on some sort of “paper”, to make it easier to go from one part to another. We could call such a thing a “book”, and I predict that it will revolutionize education and eliminate universities.

    Or not. Books didn’t and radio didn’t and television didn’t and videos didn’t and “online courses” won’t. To put it another way, “online courses” are merely videos, and a video is half-way between a book and a live lecture. Why didn’t we see AI courses packaged as DVD videos? (To those who say that an online course involves interaction like a normal lecture: really, with 160000 students?
    To those who say that there is feed back via grading: really, with 160000 students, what sort of questions will be graded? To those who say that the “course” provides certification: you can have the same certification — whatever it is — associated with a book or a DVD collection.)

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I don’t know about AI DVDs, but The Learning Company has been doing a business with CDs for some time now …

    • I can understand your skepticism, because I was skeptical too. But I suggest you go over to Khan Academy and take a couple of lessons in math. It’s BETTER than reading an algebra book AND better than the lectures I remember from high school. Combine it with Khan’s solve-ten-questions-in-a-row-to-advance methodology and it’s just a new way to learn.

      I recently needed to brush up on linear algebra for work. I had learned it before, but hadn’t used it for twenty years or so. I took up a track at Khan academy and it was actually FUN. I went about four videos farther than I needed for work (all the way up to eigenvectors, which I never really understood in college). I have a linear algebra textbook, but I’ve never read a page more than I needed to.

      Deny all you like, but education is going to be transformed in the next 10-15 years. Thank God, it’s about time.

    • By the way, here’s why I think it’s better:

      The videos feel like one-on-one teaching. The difference is that you’re not having to hold up your end of the dialog. If you were in a room and Salmon Khan was writing on the whiteboard, you would have to participate. You would feel obligated to react and ask smart questions and generally live up to your role as a student. That takes cognitive capacity that isn’t being used to absorb the lesson. When you do it by video, it’s just as intimate, but you don’t have to hold up your end of the deal. You don’t have to stop your lecturer and make them go back over something you didn’t get (always embarrassing), you just back up the video. It also doesn’t hurt that Khan himself is just a damned good lecturer.

      I’m telling you, it just feels different. I went in a skeptic, just trying to brush up on something mostly forgotten; I came away a believer.

      After all, in today’s world why should algebra lectures have to be delivered over and over by teachers all over the country? Can’t we just find one teacher who is the best at it and record them? Teachers in person are still good for answering questions and clearing up the fine points, but the basic lecture just needs to be delivered once and we’re good until algebra actually changes.

      • Cardinal Fang says:

        I love Khan Academy. You’ll get no argument from me there.

        But what’s supposed to be the revolution, and what are the alleged effects of the revolution?

        Let’s say we have every algebra student in the US watch Sal Khan instead of listening to their teacher, because Sal Khan knows more math and is a better lecturer than their teacher. Are you saying that just doing that will create a revolution? Will we get a substantial improvement in algebra learning? Will we save money?

        • No, Khan has moved far past a simple “watch the video” model. He now also individually tracks each student through each segment and then through a series of problems. Answer ten right in a row and you’re considered “proficient” in that concept (not just “passing”), The teacher uses an app that shows the progress of every student, how much time they took to master each concept and where they’re stuck. The teacher can then give them individual help on that concept. The teacher’s time is spent either helping kids directly or setting up a peer who has become proficient to help someone who’s stuck. Seems like a much better use of teacher time than simply lecturing to everyone.

          I don’t think we know yet where all this will lead. I suspect that’s one of the things that got Thrun to leave his cushy post at Stanford: he wanted to be in on it, to help make it happen. Remember back when people snickered at the idea that anyone, anywhere would actually want to buy things over that crazy interweb thingy? I think we’re in about that same place when it comes to education.

          • Cardinal Fang says:

            I hope you’re right, Rob. It would be great if we could improve K-12 teaching of math.

            I guess I was more skeptical about the revolution in Higher Ed that some have been talking about. I see initiatives like Thrun’s as great for motivated students like us, but not so much for the average college student.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    The AI class videos are transcribed here: http://www.wonderwhy-er.com/ai-class/