Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Making universities obsolete

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Sebastian Thrun [1] recently announced that he was leaving Stanford to found a free, online university called Udacity. This is based on his experiences teaching the famous intro to AI class, for free, to 160,000 students online [..].

In Sebatian's brilliant talk at DLD, he talks about being embarrassed that he was only able to teach a few tens of students at a time, and only to those who can afford $30,000 to attend Stanford. I estimate that I taught fewer than 500 students in total during my eight years on the faculty at Harvard. That's a pretty poor track record by any stretch [..].

Exclusivity is necessary when you only have so much classroom space, or so many dorms, or so many dining halls, so you have to be selective about who enters the hallowed gates of the university. It's also a way of maintaining a brand: even schools, like Harvard, with a "distance education" component go to great lengths to differentiate the "true" Harvard education from a "distance learning certificate," lest they raise the ire of the Old Boys' Network by watering down what it means to get a Harvard degree (not unlike the reaction they got when they started admitting women, way way back in 1977) [..].

Can someone remind me why we still have grades? I like what Sebastian says (quoting Salman Khan) about learning to ride a bicycle: It's not as if you get a D learning to ride a bike, then you stop and move onto learning the unicycle. Shouldn't the goal of every course be to get every student to the point of making an A+?

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[1] Sebastian Thrun is the German professor who is the brain behind Google's self-driving car software.

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