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Stanford Professor Gives Up Teaching Position, Hopes to Reach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up
January 23, 2012, 4:53 pm By Nick DeSantis
The Stanford University professor who taught an online artificial-intelligence course to more than 160,000 students has abandoned his teaching position to aim for an even bigger audience.
Sebastian Thrun, a research professor of computer science at Stanford, revealed today that he had given up his teaching role at the institution to found Udacity, a start-up offering low-cost online classes. He made the surprising announcement during a presentation at the Digital–Life–Design conference, in Munich, Germany. The development was first reported earlier today by Reuters.
During his talk, Mr. Thrun explored the origins of his popular online course at Stanford, which initially featured videos produced with nothing more than “a camera, a pen, and a napkin.” Despite the low production quality, many of the 200 Stanford students taking the course in the classroom flocked to the videos because they could absorb the lectures at their own pace. Eventually, the 200 students taking the course in person dwindled to a group of 30. Meanwhile, the course’s popularity exploded online, drawing students from around the world. The experience taught the professor that he could craft a course with the interactive tools of the Web that recreated the intimacy of one-on-one tutoring, he said.
Mr. Thrun told the crowd his move had been motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. During the era when universities were born, “the lecture was the most effective way to convey information. We had the industrialization, we had the invention of celluloid, of digital media, and, miraculously, professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,” he said.
He concluded by telling the crowd that he couldn’t continue teaching in a traditional setting. “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said.
One of Udacity’s first offerings will be a seven-week course called “Building a Search Engine.” It will be taught by David Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia and a Udacity partner. Mr. Thrun said it was designed to teach students with no prior programming experience how to build a search engine like Google. He hopes 500,000 students will enroll.
Teaching the course at Stanford, Mr. Thrun said, showed him the potential of digital education, which turned out to be a drug that he could not ignore.
“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” he said. “And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”
Correction (1/26, 11:54 a.m.): This article originally reported incorrectly that Mr. Thrun was leaving Stanford in order to pursue his start-up venture. In fact, Mr. Thrun has only left his tenured teaching position at the university, and remains an untenured research professor there. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.