The world of higher education could be on the verge of a major paradigm shift. Sebastian Thrun, a former professor of computer science at Stanford, has stepped down from his academic post to dedicate himself to running Udacity, an online university poised to offer high quality online education. At first glance, this might not seem like a big deal because there are literally hundreds of online universities. But here’s the catch: Thrun, together with cofounder, David Evans, formed the company with a goal of providing these classes to anyone for FREE. That might send a shudder through many cash-strapped traditional universities, working hard to survive in times of budget cuts and pressure to offer more services. Udacity has powerful backing. Thrun has already used the model to provide a highly successful free course through Stanford in 2011. He and Peter Novig (Director of Research at Google) developed an “Intro to Artificial Intelligence” as an experiment and ultimately ended up with 160,000 students from all over the world. It took a small army of 2,000 volunteer translators to eliminate language barriers. The end result was highly successful.
Thrun has also dispensed with the classic idea of assigning grades. In fact, he has stated: Grades are the failure of the education system. His approach is to allow students to continue working on material until they master it. He envisions an entire class finishing at an A+ level. His vision draws on something said by Salman Khan, founder of the online Khan Academy: “When you learn to ride a bicycle, and you fail to learn a bicycle, you don’t stop to learn a bicycle, give the person a ‘D’ and move onto unicycle.” A class is about teaching and learning, not about segmenting and categorizing achievement.
Udacity’s first official course begins February 20th, 2012 and people are already gearing up to be part of the grand experiment. The next course is titled: Building Your Own Search Engine. I for one, will be watching to see what I can learn from Udacity and its new approach to teaching and learning. These ideas will begin restructuring higher education on the New Digital Shoreline. For more see Udacity.