17 Jun 2012

The Next Model for Higher Education

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Sebastian Thrun on a recent news broadcast

Maybe there is a solution for the problem of out-sized tuition costs from elite universities which leave graduates hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Andy Kessler, in the Wall Street Journal, describes what happened when a Stanford Computer Science professor last year decided to offer an Artificial Intelligence course over the Internet for free.

[Sebastian Thrun was] [f]rustrated that his (and fellow Googler Peter Norvig’s) Stanford artificial intelligence class only reached 200 students, they put up a website offering an online version. They got few takers. Then he mentioned the online course at a conference with 80 attendees and 80 people signed up. On a Friday, he sent an offer to the mailing list of a top AI association. On Saturday morning he had 3,000 sign-ups—by Monday morning, 14,000.

In the midst of this, there was a slight hitch, Mr. Thrun says. “I had forgotten to tell Stanford about it. There was my authority problem. Stanford said ‘If you give the same exams and the same certificate of completion [as Stanford does], then you are really messing with what certificates really are. People are going to go out with the certificates and ask for admission [at the university] and how do we even know who they really are?’ And I said: I. Don’t. Care.”

In the end, there were 160,000 people signed up, from every country in the world, he says, except North Korea. Rather than tape boring lectures, the professors asked students to solve problems and then the next course video would discuss solutions. Mr. Thrun broke the rules again. Twenty-three thousand people finished the course. Of his 200 Stanford students, 30 attended lectures and the other 170 took it online. The top 410 performers on exams were online students. The first Stanford student was No. 411.

Mr. Thrun’s cost was basically $1 per student per class. That’s on the order of 1,000 times less per pupil than for a K-12 or a college education—way more than the rule of thumb in Silicon Valley that you need a 10 times cost advantage to drive change.

So Mr. Thrun set up a company, Udacity, that joins many other companies attacking the problem of how to deliver the optimal online education. “What I see is democratizing education will change everything,” he says.

3 Feedbacks on "The Next Model for Higher Education"


Ten years ago I made the very serious suggestion to Rick Levin that Yale ought to offer online courses from some of its most engaging faculty. I thought they could charge a fair amount for it and really extend the reach of the Yale brand. I was (politely) told that I was nuts, and that the Yale faculty would view this as a threat.
Education continues to be one of the few industries that hasn’t used technology to significantly enhance its efficiency. But, then, as long as government is providing ever greater subsides of skyrocketing costs (inflation-adjusted tuition has risen 7.5% per year over the last 30 years), why would they change?

bob sykes

This is not a Stanford-level education, and any certificates issued will not have the Stanford cache.

Elite schools offer elite credentials that are recognized and valued by elite corporations. Students attending this schools have passed rigorous selection processes, and the graduates have competed successfully with their peers.

Does anyone really believe the nonsense that 160,000 online students got a Stanford education? Absurd. Online programs are essentially low-grade community colleges regardless of who offers them. Even community colleges have some sort of admissions process, and the students actually interact with each other and the faculty.

One might also question the economics. When Ohio State dabbled in distance learning some time ago, it found that the cost per student was substantially higher than the traditional classroom cost. It should have been obvious going in. A distant learning course requires a class room at each location, not just one, and it requires staffing at each location, and it requires two-way communications.

Our ruling class is intolerant of technology in their students’ schools. Small classes and one-on-one tutoring are the norm. They will not recognize online course work.

Maggie's Farm

20,000 students at $1 per course…

That’s a model. The Next Model for Higher Ed….


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