Ask Sebastian Thrun what makes him tick, and the inventor and Google Fellow offers up three favorite themes: big open problems, a desire to help people and “disrespect for authority.” Thrun, 45, has been aiming high – and annoying the old guard – for nearly two decades. As a college student in Germany he dashed off to conferences to present major papers on machine learning without getting his professor’s permission. Thrun made the cover of FORBES in 2006 with his talk of creating self-driving cars that could navigate traffic and follow directions without human guidance. As the founding head of Google’s advanced-research X Lab, Thrun helped turn those robocars into reality. After 200,000 miles of road tests his vehicles are safe enough for Nevada to approve them on public roads. California may follow suit.
Thrun has found a fresh challenge that excites him even more: fixing higher education. Conventional university teaching is way too costly, inefficient and ineffective to survive for long, he contends. He wants to foment a teaching revolution in which the world’s best instructors conduct highly interactive online classes that let them reach 100,000 students simultaneously and globally.
Financiers at Charles River Ventures have already pumped $5 million into Thrun’s online-ed startup, Udacity. “I like to back people who have disruptive personalities,” explains CRV partner George Zachary. “They create disruptive solutions.”
Udacity’s earliest course offerings have been free, and although Thrun eventually plans to charge something, he wants his tuition schedule to be shockingly low. Getting a master’s degree might cost just $100. After teaching his own artificial intelligence class at Stanford last year – and attracting 160,000 online signups – Thrun believes online formats can be far more effective than traditional classroom lectures. “So many people can be helped right now,” Thrun declares. “I see this as a mission.”
There’s a startup boom in online higher education, but nearly all of the players hope to advance by working within the system. EdX is a joint venture of Harvard and MIT. Coursera has backing from Stanford, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. 2Tor, which has raised $90 million in venture capital, runs online graduate programs in business and nursing for the likes of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Georgetown. Such startups see benefits in teaming up with universities to decide what should be taught online, how to teach it and how to handle delicate issues such as grading, course credits, diplomas and anticheating safeguards.
Such careful collegiality is not the Thrun way. “It’s pretty obvious that degrees will go away,” Thrun says. “The idea of a degree is that you spend a fixed time right after high school to educate yourself for the rest of your career. But careers change so much over a lifetime now that this model isn’t valid anymore.”
So Udacity is charting its own path as a career academy for brainy people of all ages. Udacity’s offices are just a few hundred yards from Stanford, but they’re a world away from the school’s idyllic environs. Its open, barnlike work area has stained beige carpets, cheap desks and a Go board perched on a flimsy coffee table. Most of its 25 employees are video, graphics or software whizzes determined to make each second of online instruction as eye-catching and compelling as possible.
It currently offers 11 courses, for free, in subjects such as computer programming, statistics and mathematics, plus a robocar programmer’s workshop with Thrun himself. It rustles up some instructors from the likes of Rutgers and the state universities of Virginia and Utah. Other teachers are experts from industry. Faculty pay runs between $5,000 and $10,000 per course. Many of Udacity’s students are midcareer professionals who want to sharpen specific skills. Udacity later this year is expanding into the humanities. Thrun says the service will always have “a free path,” but the idea is eventually to charge for certificates or enhanced features such as chat.
It was only last year that Thrun seemed like a fast-track scholar thriving within academia. In eight years he rose from a Ph.D. student at the University of Bonn to a tenured post in Stanford’s computer science department (with a stint in between at Carnegie Mellon). “I was a popular professor,” Thrun says. “My teaching ratings were usually good. I could take complicated subjects and explain them in an entertaining way.”