And I feel fine! I don’t think REM was referring to a dramatic shift in the what, where, when, why, and how of education when they wrote their classic song, but the changes rocketing old-school university education off a steep cliff really do seem to be signaling the end of things as they were. Just ask Sebastian Thrun, a tenured Stanford University professor who is leaving his post at the prestigious brick-and-mortar school to start Udacity, an online university that will offer free college-level classes to the masses.
Thrun’s announcement at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich this January (Hsu, Jan. 25, 2012) is just the latest bombshell in an explosion of high profile free or extremely low cost initiatives designed to broaden the reach of higher education around the world. Thrun cited his own experience teaching 160,000 students in Stanford’s first free online computer science class, the Google and Gates Foundation-supported Khan Academy, and The Floating University as the inspiration for his transition from tenured professor at an elite institution to founder of the free educational enterprise. So what motivated him and what are the implications for the future of higher education?
A Need for Change
There is no shortage of noise about the need for reform at all levels of education – from President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address calling for universities to cut costs and tuition, to a push for acknowledgement of informal education, the scramble to adopt digital textbooks, student cries for game-based learning, and the proliferation of new online learning resources. We are at a watershed moment for education in America, and possibly even in the world at large. That is likely what Thrun sensed when he made his choice to leave Stanford in pursuit of that brighter future.
The Udacity of It
Thrun, beginning with his unprecedented 160,000-student online class at Stanford, thrust himself prominently into the discussion about the way education is changing. Choosing to go with the flow, he established Udacity.com, which employs an entirely new model of education. The mission statement of the school is, "We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world" (Udacity.com).
As of right now, there are just two course offerings— CS101: Building a Search Engine, and CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car. Both courses are taught by David Evans from the University of Virginia and Thrun. But there are more courses scheduled for release in 2012, such as Theory of Computation, Operating Systems, Computer Networks, Distributed Systems, Computer Security, Algorithms and Data Structures, Software Engineering Practices, and Building Web Applications. No information on these upcoming courses is currently available, but, according to the Udacity site, they will be taught by some of the world’s greatest teachers.
I’ve signed up for CS101 (beginning February 20th) out of personal interest (it is an intro Python programming class) and also so I could see what one of these free courses is all about. Currently, only a rough outline of the syllabus is available, but that provides some insight into the course and its quality.
The seven-week course (six weeks of lecture/homework, followed by a final exam) seems to employ the "flipped classroom" model, where students watch recorded lectures online at their own pace, then receive additional support from the instructor. How much additional support will be available is as yet unknown. However, if the class is anywhere near as popular as the previous Stanford offering, there simply won’t be time for the instructors to engage with even a small fraction of the participants.
Each week, there is a 50-minute lecture with built-in interactive quizzes between segments and a programming homework assignment. The seventh week is dedicated to the course wrap-up and final exam. The end result is that each participant who completes the course will have created their own Internet search engine. In addition, each student who completes the course will receive a certificate signed by the instructors.
What Does It Mean?
“That’s great, starts with an earthquake.”
February 20th, 2012 may not represent the actual end of the world as we know it, but for higher education, the launch of Thrun’s first Udacity class may represent the beginning of end for the education model we’ve known for hundreds of years. Depending on the popularity of the class, how many other academics sign on to provide content, how good the course actually is (stay tuned for my insights once the class begins), and if the free model is sustainable, we may know a great deal more about the future direction of higher education very soon. Sign up for the class at Udacity.com and see the future first hand.