Thrun starts web-based university

Feb. 9, 2012, 2:07 a.m.

Computer science professor Sebastian Thrun announced the launch last month of his new online university, Udacity, inspired by the massive response to his Stanford course, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, which was open to the public online this past fall. Contrary to widespread reports otherwise, Thrun will maintain his position as a research professor in the Stanford Computer Science Department.


Thrun decided to offer “Intro to A.I.” online last quarter as an experiment, expecting a turnout of around 500. When more than 160,000 people enrolled in the course, Thrun adapted the course content to the web format using an interactive platform called Know Labs. In a speech last month at the Digital Life Design (DLD) Conference in Munich, Thrun described the experience as life changing, saying that after teaching on such a large and far-reaching scale, he couldn’t return to Stanford classes.


In his DLD speech, Thrun detailed emails he received from students all over the world, including accounts from people claiming the class had changed their careers, saved their lives or kept them motivated during hard times.


“There was a guy in the fields of Afghanistan under mortar attack running for his life every day, but he spent an hour at night to do his homework assignments and to learn about A.I.,” Thrun said in the DLD speech. “That’s unbelievable.”


Udacity, a rebranding and repurposing of Know Labs, is Thrun’s attempt to reach an even larger audience with his teaching. Currently, the site hosts courses that focus on projects a student can undertake, starting with “CS 101: Building a Search Engine” and continuing to topics as advanced as driverless vehicle programming.


Following the Udacity announcement, confusion arose about whether Thrun would leave Stanford. Thrun resigned his tenure last spring due to his dual roles at Stanford and Google but remains on staff as a research professor, accountable for 20 percent work time, mostly to advise graduate students.


Jennifer Widom, chair of the Computer Science Department, said that Stanford enforces a strict limit of two years of absence in any seven-year period for tenured professors. Thrun reached this limit in various leaves of absence spent as a Google Fellow, working on research projects including his famous autonomous car project. He resigned his tenure in April of last year to move into the less-involved research role and continue at Google.


In his DLD speech, Thrun described the effects of the online A.I. experience saying, “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again.” Many interpreted this as a resignation from Stanford, but, in fact, the teaching aspect of Thrun’s professorship was already purely voluntary.


“Nothing he said was false, but sometimes it’s misleading,” Widom said. “He probably won’t teach at Stanford again, but his 20 percent research appointment has no expectation of teaching anyway.”


Rather, Thrun meant that he intends to redirect his voluntary teaching efforts toward only the new online effort.


“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” Thrun said in the speech, alluding to a scene in “The Matrix.” “I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland. We can really change the world with education.”


Although Stanford has offered some courses available online for years, the trend toward online courses has recently grown. In addition to Thrun’s course, the Computer Science Department offered machine-learning and introduction-to-databases classes through the same program, and Stanford has partnered with Apple to include courses in the company’s recent iTunes U revamp.


The recently published Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report cited online distribution of courses as an area to address in the near future, as very limited policies currently exist on the matter.


“There’s huge stuff happening with courses going online and nobody knows what they’re doing yet,” Widom said of the report’s call for new policies.

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