The ongoing discussion about online learning and its evolving role within higher education continued Thursday afternoon at a talk given by Sebastian Thrun, co-founder and chief executive officer of Udacity, an online education program. Thrun’s lecture, hosted by Professor of Computer Science Michael Littman, focused on the origins of Udacity, the structure of its classes and his vision of providing educational opportunities to millions of people across the world.
Thrun, also a research professor at Stanford University and a Google Fellow, said that he was “giving a lecture about why I hate lectures,” an aversion that is part of Udacity’s philosophy. Udacity, which currently offers 18 courses, aims “to bring accessible engaging, effective higher education to the world,” according to its mission statement.
In developing the model for Udacity, Thrun said he wanted to employ other kinds of learning, besides lectures, that allow students to become more engaged with the material. Students who take a Udacity class watch short lectures, take quizzes on the material and are given homework assignments to complete at their own speed rather than “on a timetable” like at major universities, Thrun said.
Thrun sees “self-paced learning” as the key to mastering material. There are more than 800,000 students enrolled in Udacity classes teaching subjects that include artificial intelligence and building a web browser. Upon completing a course, students have the option to get certified at a small cost and become connected with job opportunities, according to Udacity.
Udacity offers massive open online courses – or MOOCs – for free, a stark contrast with the prohibitive costs of universities. Udacity courses reach millions of people who are unable to be a part of the American university system for socioeconomic reasons, which Thrun said is a step toward “democraticizing higher education” and a “more transparent” form of education. That transparency, he said, makes it possible to more effectively address student concerns as compared to a typical university course.
Brown is now among many schools across the country that offer online courses in formats like Udacity’s. As The Herald reported in September, the University recently announced a partnership with another online education company, Coursera. Through this partnership, the University will offer not-for-credit courses for public use beginning in June 2013. Littman said he believes that the University will benefit from this new collaboration. It will enhance the University’s image across the country and provide an opportunity for students to become “active participants” in their education, he said.
Littman, who taught an algorithms course to 16,000 students through Udacity last year, also acknowledged that there are drawbacks to the online classes. Since he was not an employee of the company, he was unable to access data about the class, including students’ grades and their demographics. He could only work with students through a discussion board by answering posted questions. Littman also said it was difficult telling jokes without the instant response from a live audience, so he had to keep reminding himself to keep up his energy level to make the lectures appealing for the students listening.
Despite the generally positive feedback Thrun has received from students, he added that part of the benefit of online courses is being able to more clearly see strengths and weaknesses of the classes. The organization is focused on improving current course offerings, which are mostly science-based, before expanding into the humanities, he said. Once these courses are improved, Udacity can ensure its students are getting a high-quality education at an affordable cost, Thrun added.
Despite some of the obstacles Littman faced when teaching his first online class, he said he implemented some online materials to supplement his traditional graduate level classes. He said that using an online learning program has enhanced his class, allowing it to be more of an exploration that challenges students to think for themselves rather than solely focusing on the “technical” details that can be dry in lecture. Online courses do not replace the classroom setting or teachers, he said. But, like textbooks, they can be an additional source of guidance to students.
Students said they appreciated Thrun’s vision for a reformed educational system and the current structure of Udacity. Liz Neu ’14 said the recent growth of MOOCs has made her more curious about how they will develop in the future. Jonathan Schear ’15 found it “inspiring” and said he had been pleased to learn that there were a broad range of students taking the classes. Both agreed that they would be open to taking online courses.
Thrun said he hopes that Udacity and other online educational programs can help students from different professional, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds succeed. He said he wants to restructure the way that people think about education into a “lifetime deal” rather than a process that ends upon college graduation. He said he hopes Udacity can be a platform to help society become better educated and reach people who might have otherwise missed out on a chance to fulfill their academic potential.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the University will offer for-credit online courses through the online education company Coursera. In fact, the online classes the University will offer through Coursera are not for credit. The Herald regrets the error.