Udacity: Blowing Away the Bricks and Mortar

A popular Stanford course on artificial intelligence that routinely attracts around 200 students, was recently offered free online to anyone who wanted to ‘attend’, writes Charlotte Allen in Has the Higher-Ed Revolution Begun?  The course attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries.

Former tenured Stanford professor and robotics expert Sebastian Thrun, and Peter Norvig, research director at Google (where Thrun also works, designing cars that drive themselves), teamed up to teach the course free online, including testing, grading and ranking the students.  About 20,000 completed the course, receiving grades comparable to those of the Stanford students who took the ‘bricks-and-mortar’ course.

The article puts the cost of a year’s tuition at Stanford at about US$40,000 pa per student, while the cost of the tuition for the 160,000 students, had they been charged, would have worked out at about US$1 per student.

It’s not the first time top universities have offered free courses online, but:

What made last fall’s Thrun-Norvig course different – and revolutionary – was its certification component. The two instructors were effectively warranting independently of Stanford that the online students who passed the course had learned as much about artificial intelligence and had been held to the same standards as the Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortar version.

Thrun, who resigned his position at Stanford a few days ago, is now setting up an online university he’s calling Udacity, which plans to offer high-quality courses that are either free or cheap, and hopes to attract hundreds of thousands of students.

What a fabulous development, opening up access to top-quality courses not just for US citizens, but also for people living in countries that offer very few choices, least of all the chance to attend anything like an elite traditional US university.