How Artificial Intelligence Can Change Higher Education

Sebastian Thrun, winner of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for education takes is redefining the modern classroom

Sebastian Thrun is turning his expertise in artificial intelligence to humans. (Ethan Hill / Composite Image: NASA; Google; Udacity)
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On the day I met Sebastian Thrun in Palo Alto, the State of California legalized self-driving cars. Gov. Jerry Brown arrived at the Google campus in one of the company’s computer-controlled Priuses to sign the bill into law. “California is a big deal,” said Thrun, the founder of Google’s autonomous-car program, “because it tends to be hard to legislate here.”

He said it with typical understatement. An idea that was in its technological infancy a decade ago, when Thrun and his colleagues were racing to develop a vehicle that could drive itself more than a few miles on a desert test course, was now being officially sanctioned by the country’s most populous state. Thrun likes to quote Google’s Larry Page, whom he calls one of his mentors: “If you don’t think big, you don’t do big things. Whether it’s a big problem or a small problem, I spend the same amount of time on it—so I might as well take a big problem that really moves society forward.”

Thrun says this not on the sprawling Google campus, with its Mandarin language courses, haircut vans and Odwalla-stocked refrigerators, but in a cluttered conference room in a nondescript building on a busy commercial strip in Palo Alto. The office looks like Startup 101: fevered notation on whiteboards, Nerf blasters at employee workstations, a cornucopia of cereal boxes lining the break rooms, T-shirts with the company logo.

This is the headquarters of Udacity, billed as the “21st-century university,” where Thrun is taking his next big crack at the next big problem: education. While he still spends a day a week at Google, where he is a fellow, and remains an unpaid research professor at Stanford University (his wife, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, is a professor in comparative literature), Udacity is the place the 45-year-old, German-born roboticist calls home.

Udacity has its roots in the experience Thrun had in 2011 when he and Peter Norvig opened the course they were teaching at Stanford, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,” to the world via the Internet. “I was shocked by the number of responses,” he says. The class made the New York Times a few months later, and enrollment surged from 58,000 to 160,000. “I remember going to a Lady Gaga concert at the time and thinking, ‘I have more students in my class than you do in your concert,’ ” Thrun says. But it wasn’t just numbers, it was who was taking the class: “People wrote me these heartbreaking e-mails by the thousands. They were people from all walks of life—business people, high-school kids, retired people, people on dialysis.” Thrun, whose demeanor is a blend of continental sang-froid and Silicon Valley sunniness (he peppers the precise speech you might expect from a German roboticist with intensifiers like “super” and “insanely”), had a moment: “I realized, ‘Wow, I’m reaching people that really need my help.’ ”

The final spark came from a TED talk by the former hedge-fund analyst Salman Khan, whose Khan Academy videos—“201,849,203 lessons delivered”—offered instruction in everything from using trigonometric functions to Mark Rothko’s painting technique. “The thing that moved me,” Thrun recalls, “is that a single instructor could reach millions of people—and this wasn’t even a likely instructor, but a former financial guy.”

And so, with funding from Charles River Ventures, and with help from former Stanford AI colleagues like David Stavens, Thrun in February of this year launched Udacity, a startup providing what’s known as MOOCs: “massive open online courses.” Visit the web page, and in just a few minutes you can be enrolled in Thrun’s Statistics 101, puzzling through questions of Bayesian probability—no tuition required. The courses, all free, are taught not only by academics, but also by Silicon Valley heavyweights like Reddit founder Steve Huffman and the serial entrepreneur Steve Blank. Companies like Nvidia and Google have signed on—not only as sponsors, but, potentially, as future employers of students who complete Udacity courses. After finishing a course, students can obtain a credential to show employers by taking, for a fee, an exam administered by the educational testing company Pearson VUE.

Thrun acknowledges that he’s a newcomer in an increasingly populated field. His former Stanford colleagues Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller have started Coursera, which partners with several dozen universities, while any number of universities have begun ramping up online offerings. MIT, which began placing material online a decade ago, recently partnered with Harvard University in edX. “The University of Phoenix has had a degree program since 1989,” Thrun notes. But as he sees it, online education needs new thinking—new ways of presenting information that maximize the Internet’s potential as a teaching medium. Cathy Davidson, a professor of English at Duke University and co-director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Competition, sees Thrun’s enterprise as a catalyst for re-engineering online learning more broadly, citing his “tireless inventiveness and concern for the betterment of humanity.” She calls him “a true visionary” and adds, “which is to say, he’s a realist.”

Now, most MOOCs consist essentially of lectures posted on the Internet—“very boring and uninspirational,” Thrun says. He compares the situation to the dawn of any medium, such as film. “The first full feature movies were recordings of the physical play, end to end. They hadn’t even realized you could make gaps and cut the movie afterwards.” Udacity is rewriting the script: Rather than a talking head, there’s Thrun’s hand, writing on a whiteboard (“The hand came along by accident,” he says, “but people loved it”); rather than a quiz a week later, the lesson is peppered with on-the-spot problem-solving. What sets Udacity apart from traditional educational institutions—and from its online predecessors—is this emphasis on identifying and solving problems. “I firmly believe that learning occurs when people think and work,” Thrun says. Udacity’s website says, “It’s not about grades. It’s about mastery.” One satisfied student wrote that Udacity had defined the difference between putting a university course online and creating an online university course.

Just as Thrun speaks with conviction about the larger social import behind the gee-whiz technology of autonomous cars—“You can save lives, you can change what cities look like, you can help people share cars, you can help blind and elderly people”—he is passionate about the larger promise of Udacity. There are over 470,000 students waiting to get into community colleges in California alone. “The government doesn’t have the funds to cover their expenses,” Thrun says. “Education is really in a crisis.”


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