Sebastian Thrun bets education over driverless cars

August 28, 2012 at 9:31 am 9 comments

Last week, I got to meet Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity.  It was great fun, and I got to ask him about a bunch of the issues raised in this blog.

If you haven’t read the piece in Huffington Post about him (linked below), I recommend it.  He said that he doesn’t like the piece, since it depicts him as a reckless driver.  When you’re developing a driverless car, it’s not a good thing for people to see you as someone who can’t drive safely.  Beyond that, he liked it.  How could he not?  It paints him as a bold genius who is making big, broad gambles.

I found that Sebastian’s take on MOOC’s is quite a bit more careful than many who talk about MOOCs.  He doesn’t believe that MOOCs are going to wipe out Universities anytime soon, and he sees that there are many subjects (like occupational therapy, that I mentioned in another post) that will never work well in MOOCs.  While he believes that the Udacity platform could be used to provide substitutes to community college classes, he doesn’t see that Udacity itself is going to be doing that anytime soon.  He definitely sees Udacity as offering corporate training.

We talked about the low completion rates in Udacity courses and the fast pace that students complained about.  Sebastian said that that’s been fixed — Udacity courses can now be completely self-paced.  However, that doesn’t raise the completion rates.  Course-pace and self-pace don’t lead to high completion rates.  Maybe cohort-paced?

I asked him if he’s seen Dick Lipton’s blog on cheating vs mastery. He said that he had and that Udacity doesn’t work like that anymore.  Students taking an exam in Udacity can see the answers after the exam, which eliminates the mastery-learning component.  Students can optionally pay to go to a testing center, which diminishes the cheating possibility, but also prevents the mastery learning element.

Sebastian didn’t say this explicitly, but here’s what I believe his goal is.  He’s not out to replace the lower end.  He’s trying to create a new, low-cost option at the upper end of the higher-education spectrum.  He wants to create an inexpensive, high-quality “Elite” (to use Rich DeMillo’s term): An E-Ivy, or an ubiquitously-accessible Stanford.  The low pass rates aren’t a problem, then.  Rather, it’s using motivation and willingness to put in the effort as the filter, rather than wealthy and clout.  They’ll still have few graduates, but it’s because that’s who makes it through, not who can pay the tuition.  Those who graduate will really know their stuff.

I asked Sebastian, “Which do you think will have a bigger impact on society, Udacity on education, or your driverless car?”  He said, “Udacity’s impact on education.”  I bet the Driverless car.  I’ve seen too many people with big, even wonderful ideas to change everything in education, but they ran headlong into the schoolification of everything.  I do think that Sebastian has an angle that they haven’t.  He’s aiming to change the top, rather than try to reach the bottom.  Rather than make something that can be used with everyone, he’s making something that only a few have to succeed at. That’s an interesting and unusual strategy. The reality is that the top is the goal for everyone else, so education does get changed from the top down.  Udacity will likely change things, but I don’t think I can predict how. On the other hand, I was born in Detroit where cars are a very big thing.  I took a course at Wayne State University where a big part of it was an analysis of how car culture influenced American culture.  A successful driverless car could affect everyone in society, not just those between 4 and 24 years old, and will be especially important with the aging of America.

I suggested that we meet again in five years and see who was right.

Thrun’s resume is populated with seismic efforts, either those already set in motion or others just around the corner. There are various robotic self-navigating vehicles that guide tourists through museums, explore abandoned mines, and assist the elderly. There is the utopian self-driving car that promises to relieve humanity from the tedium of commuting while helping reduce emissions, gridlock, and deaths caused by driver error. There are the “magic” Google Glasses that allow wearers to instantly share what they see, as they are seeing it, with anyone anywhere in the world—with the blink of an eye. And there is the free online university Udacity, a potentially game-changing educational effort that, if Thrun has his way, will level the playing field for learners of all stripes.

via A Beautiful Mind.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Donna Llewellyn  |  August 28, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    I don’t think you can succeed in elite higher ed with low completion rates – once folks are paying for the courses, they are going to expect support and to be able to finish them successfully.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  August 29, 2012 at 9:12 am

      I didn’t ask Sebastian about ever moving to a paying option. I think you’re right, Donna, that if people are paying, they expect support and a reasonable chance of completion. But if they’re not paying, caveat emptor — Coursera and Udacity can literally make it as hard as they want, and it will be a badge of honor (and maybe a certification for an interesting job) to complete and do well in their courses. I told Sebastian about my interests in preparing high school teachers to teach computer science, and he seemed actually interested in the problems. But I don’t think he had much interest in using MOOC’s to solve those problems. He’s got a hammer in his hands, but he’s only looking for nails of interest to him.

  • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  August 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    I agree that driverless cars will do more than MOOCs. The power of inertia in education is too great.

  • 4. Deepak Kumar  |  August 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    “Those who graduate will really know their stuff.”

    Dillusion, OK! Does he seriously belive that one of those who ‘graduate’ will be capable of designing a driveless car???

    • 5. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  August 29, 2012 at 2:09 am

      I suspect that those who finish will be capable of driving a driverless car. Isn’t that enough for a consumer society?

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  August 29, 2012 at 9:08 am

      Is designing a driverless car something that can be done via a MOOC? Certainly, some things can be taught entirely through a MOOC, maybe even some design activities. I’ve talked to some students who took Scott Klemmer’s HCI Design class, and they thought it was surprisingly good. Audrey Watters just wrote an interesting blog post about how she thinks the new Coursera poetry class will not work. I think Coursera and Udacity are trying to figure out what they can do well with their media, and what they can’t. And to be clear, the claim “Those who graduate will really know their stuff” is mine, not Sebastian’s. The MOOC classes are hard, and getting through them does require significant knowledge.

      • 7. SteveK  |  June 3, 2014 at 12:12 pm

        I didn’t complete the udacity classes. I am too busy writing my own computer programs — that says nothing against him — I just have my own things to do, and solve my problems the best and fastest way I can — MOOC or no — but the web is a fantastic resource — today I am trying to figure out how to write C code for reading in numbers from a stream in “double” rather than “float” format. Should just be a few clicks away …

  • 8. TheMechanicalJerk  |  August 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Came here by way of Driverless Car HQ.

    The focus on low completion rates is misguided. Like you said, instead of rejecting 90% of students at the admissions stage, 90% of students don’t complete the course. Besides, the Udacity model is fairer, in that anyone who wants to complete it, can. The people rejected from elite colleges, even if they would have completed the schooling, now cannot. The Udacity model doesn’t work with a brick and mortar school, at least not easily, but it’s fine for an online course where scale is not a problem.

    Also, a tolerance for low completion rates will help people try out many different things, things they might not have tried if non-completion were punished and discouraged. You might think you don’t have the chops for calculus, so you’ll only try it if there’s no penalty for doing so.

    The real issue with Udacity is acceptance. Will employers reward those who complete Udacity courses? We like to talk about learning for its own sake, but in reality, the number of people who want that and will pay for that is small. If Udacity can lead to jobs, and not just for the occasional genius within its ranks, then it will have the potential to challenge the education establishment.

  • […] $5M (of taxpayer money) explicitly to improve completion rates over face-to-face classes, when MOOC’s currently have lower completion rates than face-to-face classes?  NSF grants are for far less money, and demand much higher expectations of return (though one […]


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