Sebastian Thrun bets education over driverless cars

Last week, I got to meet Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity. It was great fun, and I got to ask him about a bunch of the issues raised in this blog. If you haven’t read the piece in Huffington Post about him (linked below), I recommend it. He said that he doesn’t like the piece, since it depicts him as a reckless driver. When you’re developing a driverless car, it’s not a good thing for people to see you as someone who can’t drive safely. Beyond that, he liked it. How could he not? It paints him as a bold genius who is making big, broad gambles.

I found that Sebastian’s take on MOOC’s is quite a bit more careful than many who talk about MOOCs. He doesn’t believe that MOOCs are going to wipe out Universities anytime soon, and he sees that there are many subjects (like occupational therapy, that I mentioned in another post) that will never work well in MOOCs. While he believes that the Udacity platform could be used to provide substitutes to community college classes, he doesn’t see that Udacity itself is going to be doing that anytime soon. He definitely sees Udacity as offering corporate training. We talked about the low completion rates in Udacity courses and the fast pace that students complained about. Sebastian said that that’s been fixed — Udacity courses can now be completely self-paced. However, that doesn’t raise the completion rates. Course-pace and self-pace don’t lead to high completion rates. Maybe cohort-paced?

I asked him if he’s seen Dick Lipton’s blog on cheating vs mastery. He said that he had and that Udacity doesn’t work like that anymore. Students taking an exam in Udacity can see the answers after the exam, which eliminates the mastery-learning component. Students can optionally pay to go to a testing center, which diminishes the cheating possibility, but also prevents the mastery learning element. Sebastian didn’t say this explicitly, but here’s what I believe his goal is. He’s not out to replace the lower end. He’s trying to create a new, low-cost option at the upper end of the higher-education spectrum. He wants to create an inexpensive, high-quality “Elite” (to use Rich De Millo’s term): An E-Ivy, or an ubiquitously-accessible Stanford. The low pass rates aren’t a problem, then. Rather, it’s using motivation and willingness to put in the effort as the filter, rather than wealthy and clout. They’ll still have few graduates, but it’s because that’s who makes it through, not who can pay the tuition. Those who graduate will really know their stuff.

I asked Sebastian, “Which do you think will have a bigger impact on society, Audacity on education, or your driver less car?” He said, “ Audacity impact on education.” I bet the Driver less car. I’ve seen too many people with big, even wonderful ideas to change everything in education, but they ran headlong into the solidification of everything. I do think that Sebastian has an angle that they haven’t. He’s aiming to change the top, rather than try to reach the bottom. Rather than make something that can be used with everyone, he’s making something that only a few have to succeed at. That’s an interesting and unusual strategy. The reality is that the top is the goal for everyone else, so education does get changed from the top down. Audacity will likely change things, but I don’t think I can predict how. On the other hand, I was born in Detroit where cars are a very big thing. I took a course at Wayne State University where a big part of it was an analysis of how car culture influenced American culture. A successful driver less car could affect everyone in society, not just those between 4 and 24 years old, and will be especially important with the aging of America.

I suggested that we meet again in five years and see who was right. Thrun’s resume is populated with seismic efforts, either those already set in motion or others just around the corner. There are various robotic self-navigating vehicles that guide tourists through museums, explore abandoned mines, and assist the elderly. There is the utopian self-driving car that promises to relieve humanity from the tedium of commuting while helping reduce emissions, gridlock, and deaths caused by driver error. There are the “magic” Google Glasses that allow wearers to instantly share what they see, as they are seeing it, with anyone anywhere in the world—with the blink of an eye. And there is the free online university Udacity, a potentially game-changing educational effort that, if Thrun has his way, will level the playing field for learners of all stripes.

Deepa Singh
Business Developer
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