July 4, 2012

Udacity: Professors without Borders

Prospect magazine on Udacity and Sebastian Thrun: Professors without Borders.
High-quality, free online courses are changing the face of education and Udacity is leading the change.

How it started 
I was actually sort of embarrassed, to be honest,” Thrun told me. “Thinking that I would teach 200 students at Stanford while a former investment banker was teaching 200,000.

The first set of courses gave results 
The internet programme also allowed students to be quizzed and marked automatically, on a scale never before possible. Twenty-three thousand students eventually “graduated” from Thrun’s computer science course. Just over one per cent of them got perfect scores. None of those were Stanford students.

At the end of his Digital Life Design talk in January, Thrun confirmed that he had resigned his tenure at Stanford. Instead, he was throwing his energy into a new venture, going live that day, called Udacity. The site would offer “massive online open courses” (MOOCs) free of charge to the global 99 per cent, to the tech-savvy and web-illiterate alike. With student debt at $1 trillion in the United States alone—greater than credit card debt—the current education system, with its barriers, privileges, and vast inequalities, was no longer defensible, he said.

For now, Udacity and Coursera can buy time with venture capital dollars, and edX with funds from its parent universities. None are profitable, and investors don’t expect them to be—yet. But the technology costs will quickly add up. If Thrun wants to remake education, he’ll have to first make enough money to pay his employees. And if that proves impossible? He’ll either have to strike a Faustian bargain and begin charging students, fund Udacity out of his own pocket, or kill the very thing he’s created.

If there was a X-prize for disrupting education, Udacity is likely to win it.

Tags: udacity professors without borders, sebastian thrun, massive online open courses, mooc, education startup