Sebastian Thrun, Associate Professor of Comput...
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Have you ever read a newspaper or magazine article that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck, but you weren’t sure at first why?

Consider this interesting piece in the February 3 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which profiles Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University professor who has recently left his tenured teaching position (while retaining an untenured research appointment) to start up a company that offers free online courses in computer science. Called Udacity, the company currently offers two introductory programming courses — one for students with no previous background in the subject (CS101: Building a Search Engine), and the other for students with no actual programming experience (CS 373: Building a Robotic Car). Eight additional classes are planned for 2012. While students who complete the courses can receive “a certificate signed by the instructors,” Udacity offers no formal credentialing or certification, and no formal academic credit.

Why would this news raise the neck-hairs of someone who works in academe? Consider the following.

First, this professor’s goal is to reach 500,000 students. That would sound more audacious if he hadn’t already succeeded at attracting 160,000 students to a free online course in artificial intelligence that he offered while still in his teaching position at Stanford. Five hundred thousand is a potentially game-changing number of students – imagine if 10 companies achieved that goal – and things that change the game are always threatening to academics, the parameters of whose game are well-established and deeply, lovingly entrenched.

Second, Thrun’s company is unabashedly for-profit. This always bothers the academic, for a variety of reasons both good and, sometimes, perhaps more reflexive than good. One question that inevitably arises whenever education is offered by a for-profit company is that of bias — to what degree does the profit motive slant the teaching of a course? (One response to that question might be: how unbiased is the teaching in a nonprofit university setting?) Of course, all of this begs another, more practical question: How do you make a profit teaching if you don’t charge tuition? The answer to that question in this case remains murky, at least in Thrun’s public pronouncements, though he has hinted that one possible revenue stream could come from connecting Udacity to a recruiting service for businesses looking for people with specific skills. In any case, Thrun’s retention of his research appointment, a reportedly healthy infusion of venture capital, and the fact that Thrun himself is well-enough off that he was able to sink $300,000 of his own money into the venture takes some of the pressure off of Udacity to provide him with a living in the immediate future.

Third, the fact that Udacity offers no formal credentialing puts a very interesting twist on some age-old questions about the deepest purposes of education: does the fact that Udacity students will gain knowledge but no formal credit for completing these courses suggest that it offers a purer educational experience than what they get at a traditional institution of higher education? Granted, the courses currently offered by Udacity are all in technical and applied areas of computer science, as are all those announced for the coming year – future plans include courses in computer security, operating systems, and software engineering. (Thrun sees the challenges of using this kind of structure to teach humanistic topics as a “hurdle,” one to be overcome in the future.) But the question remains: is Udacity not an example of learning for the sake of learning, and perhaps a better example of that exalted endeavor than what we increasingly see in the traditional university?

Fourth, consider this quote from George Siemens, Associate Director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University (“Canada’s open university”):

The way we’re communicating and creating and sharing information has changed so dramatically that the structure of the university increasingly looks like the structure of the recording industry in the later 90s, where you have a model that isn’t really serving anyone except for the companies that are in charge of the model.

When higher education is being compared to the recording industry of the 1990s, it’s enough to make anyone’s hair stand on end. And it’s also worth noting that Siemens’ comments about the higher education establishment sound an awful lot like what we librarians tend to say about publishers.

This article reminded me of something a new college president once said in a conversation with library staff. Paraphrasing, he said, “You know, if the Walt Disney company were to decide that it wanted to get into the business of teaching introductory algebra, it would do it better than we do. Graduate-level econometrics? Probably not. But introductory algebra? Absolutely.” Maybe we don’t think that introductory algebra (or “Building a Search Engine”) is at the core of the university’s mission. Well, okay then – there seems to be a growing number of entities out there who are willing to take that burden, and its attendant students, off our hands.

Editor’s Note: In early September 2012, Colorado State University announced it will accept transfer credits from Udacity, the first university to take this step.

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


31 Thoughts on "Experiments in Free Education: The Audacity of Udacity"

That’s a a great quote from George Siemens. Can I make a slight generalization?

“The way we’re communicating and creating and sharing information has changed so dramatically that the structure of the ECONOMY increasingly looks like the structure of the recording industry in the later 90s, where you have a model that isn’t really serving anyone except for the companies that are in charge of the model.”

Or insert “Government” instead of “Economy.”

The hair really stands on the end, if you change this professor’s goal from 500,000 students, to say 500 million – which is sill less than Facebook’s reach. Is a website that educates a billion people that much harder or more expensive, or less valuable, than one that does whatever it is that Facebook does for them?

I call this the digital delusion. Improved communication is a wonderful thing but it is not destabilizing fundamental institutions.

The Arab spring, newspapers and Borders must have not got the memo.

These are not fundamental institutions, not like the economy or government. And last I noticed there were still a lot of newspapers. The hype is getting boring. like all hype. Hype is innovations greatest enemy.

You’re right, David — and in 2000 there were still lots of CD stores, despite all the boring hype about iTunes.

I think you’re misconstruing both the cause and the nature of the disruption signaled by initiatives like Thrun’s. His kind of project is made possible by digital technologies, certainly, but what makes it disruptive isn’t the fact that it involves digital communication. What makes it disruptive is its capacity to do some (not all, but some) of what people have traditionally counted on universities to do — and to do those things for an exponentially larger number of students, at students’ convenience, in the students’ homes, and at no charge. The fact that this is done digitally is incidental. It seems to me that faced with those facts, the higher education establishment would be foolish not to take seriously the possibility that Thrun’s model represents a threat to the status quo. Dismissing any discussion of that potential threat as “hype” may be comforting in the short run, but in light of recent history it seems unwise to me.

Rick, I did not dismiss Thrun’s initiative as hype, I dismissed Pullin’s claim that both the economy and government per se are about to be overthrown by digital means as hype. There is a difference.

I did not dismiss Thrun’s initiative as hype, I dismissed Pullin’s claim that both the economy and government per se are about to be overthrown by digital means as hype. There is a difference.

There sure is. And I guess if Pullin had actually claimed that the economy and government were about to be overthrown, I might have seen the connection more readily.

Sometimes the purpose of formal education is not the acquisition of knowledge, which has long been obtainable for free at any library, but the acquisition of credentials, in order to provide proof of knowledge to employers. Unless employers accept and value “a certifcate signed by the instructors” of a private company, this free education may not be worth much.

I think you’ve hit upon a very important function of the higher education market: credentialing. From a purely economic perspective, the thing colleges produce (other than an enormous pool of debt which cannot be eliminated in bankruptcy) are degrees, which happen to be attached to people. Credentials are useful for all sorts of reasons, but clearly their economic function is paramount. In his recent tough talk on the subject, Obama has even said something along the lines of “it doesn’t matter what kind of learning the credential signifies: the only thing important is that more people have them.” This is clearly a short sighted way of thinking about credentials, but as anyone who’s taught a required course for general education purposes (or, really, any undergrad course) there are plenty of students who see this as their primary goal in being there, learning be damned. We’ve explored some of this in relation to the question of what the university is on the Scanning for Futures blog.

In this sense, your final sentence of “Unless Employers” is the key driver to some of this. Last December, with the announcement of MITx – which is, to my mind, the really disruptive model since it is still associated with the school and could give out a formal credential of some kind – there was a post over at Open Content that claims this is exactly what will start happening:

“Say I’m Google, and I need to hire an engineer. My job ad requirement says “BS in Computer Science or equivalent.” I get two applicants. The first has a BS in Computer Science from XYZ State College. The second has certificates of successful completion for open courses in data structures and algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning from Stanford and MITx. Do you think I’ll seriously consider candidate two? You bet I will. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of the tyranny of the degree. When big name employers accept another credential in place of a Bachelors, the jig is up for higher ed.”

This is clearly possible and, as several people have pointed out, it is clearly something important players in the field are interested in trying, cf: the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla initiative on open badges for higher ed (which IIRC got at least rhetorical, if not financial, support from the US Dept of Ed.) Audrey Watters gave a nice roundup of initiatives around this, similar to Udacity in that they were part of what’s called the uncollege movement or the DIY university movement. She’s skeptical of the tales of success it promotes, but she also places the movement in the context of not only the innovations in technology that make some of this possible, but the social pressures that are making it seem attractive:

In this sense, I agree strongly with David that it is difficult to upset what he calls “fundamental institutions” merely with innovations in technology. But when you factor in rising, maybe permanently high, unemployment even among people who have a degree; rising tuition; rising levels of debt ( cf: the crushing tales at and a general ambivalence among elites about the value of general education (cf: Obama above); as well as myriad stories about the lack of deep learning, e.g. the academically adrift study, in US universities, it spells a very disturbing picture of what the future of higher education could look like – and the role technology could play in it. While I don’t see it as a necessarily hopeful future, IHE featured a piece by two top NITLE officials this morning spelling out just what this scenario might look like. It’s worth checking out as it would be a very different market atmosphere for scholarly publishing.

My sense of the upshot of this piece is that there are ways colleges and universities could change to alter the course of this future, but they have to start thinking more offensively. MITx – and the Stanford MOOCs – are an interesting attempt to do this; the fact that Thurn just headed out on his own, with no business model or real sense of how it would work (other than that a fat VC firm would pay his bills for a few years) tells us what they are up against.

The matter is that it is necessary to recognize irreversible process of self-education when even the expert studies materials not connected with its professional work. It is the general tendency of accessible knowledge, it is defined by requirement of the individual. To receive paid education and to work not on a speciality. Another matter to choose most and to be the expert. It not the higher education market. It is the free and realized access to knowledge it is connected with a choice of correct practical application. It means that realization of opening is possible without participation of any scientific institution.

You raise some interesting points here. We’ve discussed them a little on our futures blog:

The question of the role of the university in the coming years is paramount – whether it is about learning or credentialing. But as a faculty member my greatest suspicion is of the pedagogical model being described here. This is not, after all, an actually one-to-one enterprise, any more than videotaped lectures or podcasts from the Learning Company. It may fill a niche, but the real driver here are all the other for-profit virtual schools (from k-12 to higher ed) which are suddenly appearing on the scene because the infrastructure costs are suddenly so low (and the federal dollars so very very plentiful.) In the end I think the MOOC model is a laudible one: it’s just amazing how quickly it morphed into a venture capital enterprise.

It seems that the traditional university educational model is nearing a breaking point. Exorbitant tuitions, despair over getting jobs while saddled with loans, and the increasing corporatization of universities at the expense of teaching are contributing factors.

I welcome any reasonable experiments that take advantage of our access to Internet and computer-mediated resources. Let’s try to be open-minded about this.

If traditional universities continue to exist, they need to be there to serve the students, rather than the reverse.

Universities are not there to serve their students, they are there to teach them. There is a difference. Teachers are not servants, quite the contrary. But those who prefer TV’s are welcome to their choice.

This is what is wrong with teachers today they do not behave as Servants. In order to be a leader in todays world as in any other time a Leader/Teacher (interchangeable) MUST first be a SERVANT. Much to your chagrin based on your posts this guy is on the right path and not alone. Thiel Foundation gave away $100,000 to several student to NOT go to school.

Business MUST learn new ways of quantifying ones skills. The pursuit of excellence and the ability to self train changes the game of what a person can learn without paying outlandish prices for outdated education. Sorry Mr Wojick just gonna have to either accept the changes for our future or get left behind. University of Freedom is here for all!

Rather an antiquated view and one that I observe is often not done well.

I like to think of myself as an anarcho-syndicalist in educational matters, but the draw of Udacity is perhaps less a liberation of learning-for-learning’s-sake than economical exposure to the ever-so-slight Stanford-ness of the education.

Udacity seems to be challenging the market occupied by trade schools and/or community colleges. It is an alternative challenger to the other existing for-profits, such as Phoenix U. and Kaplan which, on their side and to lump them all unfairly into one barrel, are ripe for their own sub-prime student-loan scandal. Fortunately, I have not seen Wall Street securitizing them.

It is hard to see teaching artificial intelligence and designing search engines as competing with trade schools and community colleges. Moreover, my understanding is that while 160,00 people (globally) signed up (and I considered doing so) only 30,000 or so finished. The problem here, as with the dot-com bubble, is that people have no sense of scale. Education is the world’s largest factory system, by far. Billions of people spending 12 to 20 years of their lives, all doing the same tasks. Changing this system is not like selling cell phones or iPads, but people insist on viewing it that way. It is like the humans do not exist, as all eyes are on the screen.

Postscript: it started to snow today so they dumped the schools. The roads are clogged with buses, full of people.

No one is arguing that free online courses on applied computer science, in and of themselves, are going to shake the foundations of higher education. What makes the Thrun endeavor interesting and potentially alarming, I think, is the fact that it represents proof of concept at massive scale. I think it’s incredibly ironic that you accuse those who take this issue seriously as having “no sense of scale.” How many professors in a traditional educational setting reach 30,000 students during an entire career? Thrun and his colleague (that’s two people) took 30,000 (that’s 30,000) students successfully all the way through a class over the course of a year — and charged those students nothing. To argue that we should pay no attention to developments like this because there are still lots of people in traditional schools seems remarkably myopic to me.

Rick, perhaps I am not so easily alarmed, at least not this time. I fully expect digital technology to play a major role in education, in fact I am part of that initiative. That it will replace education as we know it I just do not believe. People need to understand that hyperbole is the paralyzing enemy of innovation.

I’m confused, David: which are the statements on this page that you find so paralyzingly hyperbolic? You seem to be arguing with straw men — people who think that “changing (the educational) system is like selling cell phones or iPads”; who “insist on viewing” these issues “as if humans do not exist”; who are claiming that “both the economy and government… are about to be overthrown by digital means,” and that “digital technology will replace education as we know it.” These are wild exaggerations of what’s actually being said by the people in this conversation.

Rick, try doing Pullin’s substitution, plus Christopher’s claim that university edu is at the breaking point. Hyperbole is my point so I am taking it seriously.

Taking an argument seriously means dealing with the argument, not creating a caricature of the argument and then attacking the caricature. Cases in point:

Pullin’s substitution results in the assertion that the government and the economy increasingly look like they’re set up to serve the entities that are in charge of them. Hardly even a radical sentiment these days, let alone hype. Still less does it amount to a “claim that both the economy and government per se are about to be overthrown by digital means.”

Christopher didn’t “claim that university education is at the breaking point” – that would indeed be hyperbole. His statement was that it “seems” to him as if the traditional model is “nearing” a breaking point. He then gives reasons why that seems to him to be the case. You (and I) may disagree, but stripping out his qualifying language and then dismissing the resulting distortion as innovation-paralyzing hype is pretty much the exact opposite of taking it seriously.

AI, I grant you. But the business proposed is based on ‘designing search engines’ — which really is largely marketing-speak for data structures and algorithms, and database design, very much CS 101 or 201, thus a subject somewhat more amenable to being enlivened (not fully personified) by a Computer- or Internet-based process. I think you missed the fact that my comment was largely agreeing with you. But that is _not_ me attacking you.

In all (false) humbleness, I think the kind of talking at cross-purposes in evidence in this thread is one of the major stumbling blocks to online-learning for all but the most … I don’t know, ‘rote-ish’ or drill-based learning. One of the main aspects of teaching is the in-person ‘re-presentation’ of the material. The teacher helps (or should help) the student come ‘up’ to the terms of the material and the material come ‘down’ to the terms of the student: a kind of mutual translation and re-discovery of linguistic community. This back-and-forth can barely take place on the phone let alone in a chat or a bulletin board. Electronic communication makes this MORE tedious, error-prone and time-wasting: not less — precisely what the computer and the internet are supposed to alleviate.

Another main aspect of teaching is certification and, if you accept my previous point about teaching, it again follows that only the most ‘rote-ish’ could be certified in an online setting (and I use that weird expression ‘rote-ish’ because there is no doubt more to it than I can currently grasp or formulate). For any body of knowledge of any substance, whether or not someone is “qualified” is a difficult proposition, combining a mixture of ‘circle of trust’ (this expert or institution I believe in vouches for this Dean who vouches for this department head who vouches for this prof who vouches for this student, etc.), formal certification (“objective” tests), and winnowing time (and no doubt more — don’t want to play the know-it-all). ‘Circle of trust’ is really what tradition is in the most tangible of senses: a handing-down and -over of authority. Seriously, think of you have to consider for ‘hiring’ and ‘getting hired’. And I do not currently see how the computer and the internet enhance tradition.

David, you are quibbling. You know what I mean. Teaching is a great service. I think you understand that.

The great promise of the new computer-mediated technologies is that it shifts the burden from teaching to learning. If done well, this can place greater responsibility on students, with teachers as guides. lecturing to sleepy students and handing out grades for obedient recall will no longer suffice.

Your grotesque description of education is the problem. This is my only point. Hyperbole is the problem. Scholarly publication is under attack, but education is awash with hyperbole. What other industry is dominated by demand for reform?


You are extremely rude. I’m a newcomer to this site. I expected intelligent conversation here, not insults. I am very disappointed.

It may be relevant here to quote a paragraph from a talk I gave titled “Thinking Systematically about Scholarly Communication” way back in 1997 at a conference sponsored by AAUP/ARL/ACLS/CNI:

“Before closing, I’d like to issue a warning that I hope all of you will take seriously. We stand poised now at the dawn of a new era in learning where technology, in allowing for innovation in both research and teaching, holds forth tremendous potential for greater productivity. But we in universities are not alone in seeing this potential. Commercial firms are gearing up to get into the business in a big way. An ad in Publishers Weekly a few weeks ago (August 25) with a headline quote from Bill Gates announcing a “technotainment” conference to be held in New York at the end of this month put the point bluntly: “The reason behind the theme [of this conference] is both a celebration & the establishment of credibility of an observation. The observation is the emergence of an extraordinary group of creative ideas, programs & products that address parallel systems of learning independent of our various entrenched educational systems. These ideas have been created by those in the information & entertainment industries, thus the name `Technotainment’. This is clearly the great American business for the 21st Century–the business of learning.” That is about as clear a warning shot across our bow as we are going to get. This reminds me of Columbia professor Eli Noam’s conjuring up of a vision, in an article entitled “Electronics and the Dim Future of the University,” of a McGraw-Hill University “awarding degrees or certificates, just as today some companies offer in-house degree programs. If these programs are valued by employers and society for the quality of admitted students, the knowledge students gain, and the requirements that students must pass to graduate, they will be able to compete with many traditional universities, yet without bearing the substantial overhead of physical institutions. It is likely that commercial publishers will assemble an effective and even updated teaching package, making the traditional curriculum at universities look dull by comparison, just as `Sesame Street’ has raised the expectations of pupils for a lively instructional style” (Noam 1995: 248). I’d urge, then, that we need to be ready for this challenge and not let another opportunity–as we did with STM journal publishing–slip out of our grasp and beyond our effective control. If universities have been groaning under the burden of high fees for STM journals, imagine what the fees will be for fancy distance-learning modules, developed in universities but then ceded via copyright transfer to commercial companies for exploitation! ”

I think one possibility, by the way, is that such innovative approaches as Udacity may challenge traditional certifying programs in bricks-and-mortar universities and put some of them out of business, but will leave in place elite universities that can still offer a special kind of residential education and credentialing for the current and aspiring upper class–in other words, exacerbate the elitism of higher education to a new level. There will always be a need and demand for “finishing schools” for the elite!

Computers and tablets are only assistants and a good teacher’s will always be needed.
However social networks such as facebook and YouTube as well as great resources including Wikipedia and Wolfram-Alpha are here to stay so that educators must use them in the teaching process.

Some time ago YouTube moved a lot of their educational content to a separate domain giving people access a broad set of educational videos.

However, some complaints include the variety of the content found there as well as the need for schools to register on YouTube under the academic section in order to show their videos, leaving out many academics, professionals and students not formally associated with mainstream schools which contribute with great videos.

Many academics are posting great educational videos and materials online. The only problem is to sort the good ones from the rest and present them in an organized manner.

This effort is being done by: which presents the best educational videos available on YouTube in an organized, easy to find way to watch and learn. It also links the videos to related content in Wikipedia or associated websites.

They are classified and tagged in a way that enables people to find these materials more easily and efficiently and not waste time browsing through pages of irrelevant search results.

The website also enhances the experience using other means such as recommending related videos, Wikipedia content and so on. There’s also a Spanish version called

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