Taking the Red Pill Takes You to Wonderland

By Eric Wearne

Eric Wearne, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

In 2011, Sebastian Thrun left his position as a computer science professor at Stanford University. He had offered a course on artificial intelligence, and enrolled 200 Stanford students. But the course was also offered online, for free.

One hundred sixty thousand students from 190 countries enrolled in the course that way, and watched professor Thrun and his colleague from Google, Peter Norvig, teach their content through a series of videos and interactive quizzes and homework assignments.

The experience proved transformational, for the students as well as Thrun. Of the 200 Stanford students enrolled, most stopped coming to class – they watched the videos and took the quizzes online just as students in Australia, Bangladesh and other countries did instead.  And it turned out to be the end of Thrun’s time at Stanford. According to the New York Times, “’Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,’ he said at a digital conference in Germany in January. ‘I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.’”

So Thrun left Stanford to found Udacity with his colleague David Evans, a computer science professor from the University of Virginia. Udacity offers courses online, for free, to anyone interested in enrolling, anywhere in the world. The lessons consist of video lectures by the professors (Thrun and Evans), along with interactive quizzes and homework assignments.

Students can watch the videos as many times as they like, and take the quizzes as often as they like, until they’ve gained mastery and feel confortable with the content. Teaching assistants are available to answer questions between class sessions. Homework is due weekly, and is submitted through the website. There will be a final exam and grades will be assigned.

I looked into one class – CS 101: Building a Search Engine – the first week to see how it worked pedagogically. The lectures were paced well and built logically on each other. The quizzes and homework assignments ranged from fairly easy to fairly challenging (I have no real programming expertise, so I could see myself or other beginners hitting a wall with the difficulty level at some point, unless we put a lot of study time in).

And though I didn’t use it, many users were very active on the discussion boards, working through the content together. The site header says Udacity is currently in “Beta” testing, so it may eventually cost money to take classes there. And since there is no Udacity degree, grades seem to be mostly there for motivation. But overall, for a first run, the site looks like it will be quite effective in teaching people some computer science theory and programming skills.

Various other organizations like Udacity are beginning to offer credentials for passing courses (the credentials are often not for free; only the Stanford students actually got credit for Thrun’s artificial intelligence course, though the other completers did get a certificate). It is not so hard to imagine students collecting a set of online courses, paying for the credentials (though significantly less than they would pay to be a full-time college student), and ending up with a set of skills that is more verifiable than the set of skills many traditional degrees represent now.

Credentials simply mean what the market and society say they mean. If a major employer, or group of employers, decided they would accept a suite of courses from a Udacity-like company in lieu of a traditional degree, then that set of courses would be just as valuable to those students as a traditional degree would be, in terms of employment prospects.

Colleges and universities are certainly aware of this potential competition, and in some ways are acting to anticipate it. Stanford is offering several large classes online, and another well-known program, MITx, is set to grow. Udacity itself started by offering two classes this year – CS 101: Building a Search Engine, and CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car.  Other Udacity courses are now opening up, and many more will be available soon. Udacity’s appeal to students around the world is sure to grow, even though I somehow doubt this school will ever field a football team.

(Eric Wearne is a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education. Previously he served the Georgia Governor’s Office as deputy director at the Office of Student Achievement.)

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