Using Khan Academy as inspiration, Sebastian Thrun decided to bring his Stanford class on artificial intelligence online. Anyone could sign up for free. And 160,000 people from around the world did. He saw the power of creating interactive lectures and distributing them for free. He left Stanford and launched Udacity, a company focused on bringing free university-level education to the world.
In the interview above, Sebastian Thrun, Co-Founder of Udacity, talks about how he will help students improve their careers, whether or not the goal is to replace traditional universities, how the classes are different from iTunes U style taped lectures, and why some of his Stanford students preferred to watch him online.
Sebastian used to think that becoming a Stanford professor was the pinnacle of achievement for a computer science teacher. Then he discovered Khan Academy was reaching millions of students. Suddenly, his popular lectures drawing upwards of 200 students didn’t seem so impressive.
Classes are currently focused on computer science since that’s what the team already knows how to teach. Examples include: Building a Search Engine and Programming a Robotic Car. As one of the inventors of Google’s self-driving car, Sebastian is perfectly suited to teach a class on how to program one. Udacity plans to expand to other subjects with the goal of building a full university online.
All classes are currently free, and the goal is to keep it that way. When asked how it will make money, Sebastian pointed out that recruiting good technical talent is something that companies pay for. Udacity knows who the best students are and could pass them along to companies looking for new hires.
The classes are different than watching a recorded lecture that you’d find on iTunes or MIT OpenCourseWare. Classes are interactive and stop to quiz you on what you’re learning. And one of the benefits is that you go at your own pace, unlike a traditional lecture.
Of course, there are drawbacks to teaching a class to hundreds of thousands of people online. It’s more difficult to form connections with other students in the class. And the one-on-one attention from a professor is practically non-existent. Udacity has been using Google Moderator to let students submit questions, but the experience is very different.
Udacity is aimed at bringing education to everybody, especially those who can’t afford it or are too busy working to attend classes. Since the classes are free, you’re getting an amazing value. But, someone with the time and money would probably still want to attend a traditional school (or accredited online program) to get a degree. If Udacity were to develop a worthwhile accreditation system, that could change.
With free courses in programming and web application engineering (taught by Steve Huffman, founder of Hipmunk, Financial Trading School and Reddit), you now have one less excuse not to pursue that startup idea that’s been bouncing around in your head.