Udacity and the future of online universities

Udacity and the future of online universities

Felix Salmon on Sebastian Thrun, the open course runner extraordinaire who built the Stanford AI course:

Thrun was eloquent on the subject of how he realized that he had been running “weeder” classes, designed to be tough and make students fail and make himself, the professor, look good. Going forwards, he said, he wanted to learn from Khan Academy and build courses designed to make as many students as possible succeed — by revisiting classes and tests as many times as necessary until they really master the material.

When the history of open education is written, I think one question will be whether the initial focus on participation from the “top colleges” was a good place to start. Undergraduate education in a place like Stanford can be divorced from the problems of universal education in very unhelpful ways.

If you have a “weeder” mentality, there is no failure. Those people that dropped out? Well, good riddance. The people that studied but didn’t learn? Probably not college material. 

You can’t have a universal access focus and a weeder mentality at the same time. The two are antithetical.

Thrun apparently agrees:

But that’s not the announcement that Thrun gave. Instead, he said, he concluded that “I can’t teach at Stanford again.” He’s given up his tenure at Stanford, and he’s started a new online university called Udacity. He wants to enroll 500,000 students for his first course, on how to build a search engine — and of course it’s all going to be free.

Adding: I’m probably way too harsh on Ivy League schools here — anybody who tries to do something in this space is a friend of mine. But I get frustrated with a press that ignores similar experiments from lower-tier institutions and a grant structure that seeks answers to problems of universal education from the most elite institutions on the planet. 

But those people working at top-tier schools to do this? Still my heroes, every one of you. 

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