Monday, January 23, 2012

And I Thought 92 Students in My Western Civ Class Was a Bit Large

EDN (a trade publication for electrical engineers) reports:
It seems that Sebastian Thrun, Google Fellow and research professor at Stanford University, has decided to quit Stanford, giving up his tenure, to start a new online university called Udacity. His goal is to enroll 500,000 students for his first course – which will be free — on how to build a search engine.
To be blunt, the old model of university is likely to fade rapidly.  The way that we teach traditional classes is left over from the medieval period--from the graduation gowns (originally clerical robes, because universities started out as cathedral schools) right down to lecturing to a bunch of students in a classroom (because books were too expensive for students--or even professors--to buy).

Online classes are part of the change, but sometimes tells me that Thrun is going to be part of the next wave that completely destroys the old model in a generation or two.  And at least at the high end, it needs destroying, as Thrun points out:
Thrun apparently thinks that, important and revolutionary though the realization of self-driving cars would be, the concept of  freely-available online education, taught by pre-eminent technology leaders, has even more potential to change the world. In the US, over the past generation the concept of a college education has shifted from being an opportunity to learn important ideas that will fit a student to contribute to a dynamic, free society, to getting into an expensive, exclusive club that allow you to rub shoulders with  other future power brokers who will protect and enrich the status quo. Is the education itself at Harvard really that much better than at a fine state university? No. But families and students waste an incredible amount of effort trying to get into Ivy League schools to join this club of elites. (And those elites are the same people who brought us the worldwide financial meltdown of the past ten years.)


  1. I checked out their site, the class mentioned in the article is really a "CS 101" class using a web search engine as a teaching project.

  2. There's plenty of promise in on-line education. But we're likely to turn the model on its head, with single on-line "lectures" and face to face recitation/problem sessions.

    I think that there's a great deal of variability in lecturers' ability. You can get a few superstars that make fantastic lectures that really should viewed by everyone. Feynman on physics was one such lecturer. And I had one short course where one of the lecturers was a renowned author, but what amazed me was his ability as an instructor. In just two days he covered what normally was a semester course and made the material completely understandable.

  3. When you mentioned that books are now a lot cheaper, that resonated with me. Indeed, that may be a major factor in why I want to attempt "apprenticeship" colleges.

    I would like to create a small company, and try to support everyone on part-time income. The remaining time would be spent on the older people in the company tutoring the adolescents in a trade of some sort, math, literature, science, and so forth, up to whatever level the students desire (up to and including doctorate).

    We would consult various colleges (both local and not-so-local) to see what they are teaching, and what books they are using, and what they require to graduate, and tailor our teaching using these plus a combination of what the students want to learn.

    This desire is still so pie-in-the-sky, it's rather funny, but it's nonetheless a model that, if successful, would certainly challenge modern colleges!