Professor Leaves Stanford Teaching Post, Hoping to Reach 500,000 at Online Start-Up

Noah Berger, The New York Times, Redux

Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of an online education company, says he will have more flexibility to do experimental teaching in the commercial sector than at a traditional college.
January 29, 2012

A Stanford University professor who made headlines this past fall by teaching an online artificial-intelligence course to more than 160,000 students has left his teaching post at the university to seek an even bigger audience.

The professor, Sebastian Thrun, announced last week that he would teach free online courses through a company he co-founded instead, with the goal of reaching half a million students at once.

The leap to the commercial sector may have been his plan all along: He gave up tenure in April to continue working for Google, where he helped create a driverless car. Two months later, he started a company called Know Labs, and its technology powered the fall course.

The professor-turned-commercial-educator is now betting that students will try free courses that teach in-demand skills on flexible schedules—even if the courses are not affiliated with a prestigious university, and their work doesn't earn them a degree. The company is calling its online course offerings Udacity.

Mr. Thrun's move is part of a growing trend among educators who have tried opening their online courses to the entire world. This spring, professors from Stanford, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of California at Berkeley will teach a group of 16 free online courses in subjects including cryptography, anatomy, and civil engineering, according to Andrew Ng, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford who taught his own open machine-learning class last year.

Students taking the new open courses at those institutions won't receive academic credit for their work, and Udacity's students will take an even bigger leap: Their classes won't enjoy even a tangential affiliation with a prestigious university.

Mr. Thrun credited Salman Khan, creator of the popular online-lecture repository Khan Academy, with inspiring him to try opening up his online artificial-intelligence course this fall. When he taught the course at Stanford, about 200 traditional students were enrolled, Mr. Thrun said, and many of them stopped showing up for class, opting instead to watch his video lectures at their own pace. Attendance for the in-person section eventually dwindled to 30 students. Meanwhile, the course's popularity boomed online, with 23,000 of the 160,000 enrollees eventually completing it. Mr. Thrun said the experience taught him how free online education could be used to reach underprivileged students in remote corners of the world.

The decision to step down from a teaching post at Stanford, where he is still a research professor, was motivated in part by his desire to experiment with new teaching models, Mr. Thrun said. He said rules governing accreditation at traditional universities might keep professors from doing the kind of extreme makeover of a college course he would like to try. For instance, he may radically adjust the lengths of his lessons depending on how quickly students are learning the material.

"I think I will have more breathing room if I don't tie this into all these really hard and thorny questions that exist in universities," he said.

Starting in late February, Mr. Thrun plans to teach a course on programming a robotic car at his new venture, inspired by his Google work. He hopes to attract 500,000 students. That will be one of only two courses Udacity will offer at the outset. The other, a course that aims to teach students with no programming experience how to build a search engine, will be taught by David Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia and Know Labs' vice president for education. The courses are designed to teach skills that students want to learn—a priority, Mr. Thrun said, that traditional teaching models sometimes leave behind.

"I think a lot of classroom teaching is empowering the professors," he said. "They often are very smart when they talk to the students, and the students walk away saying, 'That professor is really smart.' But I want to empower the student. I want the student to walk away and say, 'I learned a lot, I'm now capable of doing something that I really care about.'"

Will Students Come?

George Siemens, an associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, who has taught several popular online courses of his own, said Mr. Thrun's move was "good news" for educators, but he called the goal of teaching half a million students "surprisingly ambitious." Mr. Siemens, whose employer bills itself as "Canada's open university," wondered if the professor's association with Stanford was a big draw that led to the course's popularity.

"Once you move out of the protection of a university for name recognition, I think there's always a risk that you mistake that it's the influence of yourself personally rather than the structure of the institution and what that institution means to other people internationally," he said.

But Know Labs' venture, Mr. Siemens noted, is still valuable because it provides evidence that educators are rethinking even the most fundamental part of today's education system.

"The way we're communicating and creating and sharing information has changed so dramatically that the structure of the university increasingly looks like the structure of the recording industry in the late 90s, where you have a model that isn't really serving anyone well except for the companies that are in charge of the model," he said. Mr. Siemens said it was important for online-learning ventures to focus on improving teaching, and not simply upending the traditional degree model.

It's an expensive gambit for Mr. Thrun, who said he had invested $300,000 of his own money in Know Labs. The company has also secured "sizable" financing from Charles River Ventures, according to David Stavens, Know Labs' chief executive, though he declined to describe the extent of the investor's contribution. Mr. Stavens said Udacity was exploring ways to turn a profit on its free education model, including helping businesses recruit Udacity students who express interest in certain job opportunities. By collecting those recruiting fees, Mr. Stavens said, his online program could maintain its commitment to free education while acting in the interests of its students and ensuring its own financial success.

In addition to finding a path to financial stability, Know Labs faces another potential hurdle: finding ways to teach humanities courses, since essays aren't as easily graded as computer-science problems.

"It would seem to be more difficult to do that out-of-the-box certification for courses that aren't quantitative," said Raymond Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Mr. Stavens said Know Labs would stick with computer-science courses in the beginning, since everything the company teaches must be graded electronically. Right now, he said, it is too expensive to grade humanities assignments in bulk.

Udacity may not succeed right away, said Mr. Thrun, but if his company can prove it is offering a useful service within a few years, he hopes students will recognize its value. He believes the potential gains are worth the gamble.

"I love jumping in head-first," he said. "In poker, I like to be all in, and I'm certainly all in right now. There's no easy return."