Udacity and the future of online universities

By Felix Salmon
January 23, 2012

The most exciting (but also, in a small way, slightly depressing) presentation at DLD this year came from Sebastian Thrun, of Stanford and Google. Or formerly of Stanford, anyway.

Thrun told the story of his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class, which ran from October to December last year. It started as a way of putting his Stanford course online — he was going to teach the whole thing, for free, to anybody in the world who wanted it. With quizzes and grades and a final certificate, in parallel with the in-person course he was giving his Stanford undergrad students. He sent out one email to announce the class, and from that one email there was ultimately an enrollment of 160,000 students. Thrun scrambled to put together a website which could scale and support that enrollment, and succeeded spectacularly well.

Just a couple of datapoints from Thrun’s talk: there were more students in his course from Lithuania alone than there are students at Stanford altogether. There were students in Afghanistan, exfiltrating war zones to grab an hour of connectivity to finish the homework assignments. There were single mothers keeping the faith and staying with the course even as their families were being hit by tragedy. And when it finished, thousands of students around the world were educated and inspired. Some 248 of them, in total, got a perfect score: they never got a single question wrong, over the entire course of the class. All 248 took the course online; not one was enrolled at Stanford.

Thrun was eloquent on the subject of how he realized that he had been running “weeder” classes, designed to be tough and make students fail and make himself, the professor, look good. Going forwards, he said, he wanted to learn from Khan Academy and build courses designed to make as many students as possible succeed — by revisiting classes and tests as many times as necessary until they really master the material.

And I loved as well his story of the physical class at Stanford, which dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.

So what I was expecting was an announcement from Thrun that he was helping to reinvent university education: that he was moving all his Stanford courses online, that the physical class would be a space for students to get more personalized help. No more lecturing: instead, the classes would be taken on the students’ own time, and the job of the real-world professor would be to answer questions from kids paying $30,000 for their education.

But that’s not the announcement that Thrun gave. Instead, he said, he concluded that “I can’t teach at Stanford again.” He’s given up his tenure at Stanford, and he’s started a new online university called Udacity. He wants to enroll 500,000 students for his first course, on how to build a search engine — and of course it’s all going to be free.

Udacity looks great, and I can’t wait for it to be a revolutionary success, educating and empowering students around the world, especially in places like Africa and India, and, in those places, especially women.

But I have to say I’m a little sad that it’s happening away from, rather than being part of, Stanford. If any world-class university would embrace this idea, one would hope it would be the one at the heart of Silicon Valley. And surely Udacity would only benefit if it was part of Stanford and carried the Stanford brand name. Instead, Thrun is abandoning Stanford and creating Udacity on its own. (And I’m no great fan of the name, either.)

Stanford was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building a new physical campus in New York City — but it isn’t willing, it seems, to help Thrun build a free virtual campus which could reach the whole world. That’s a dereliction of its educational duty. But where Stanford has failed, surely some other elite university will step in. Thrun is taking a bold step here. Let’s hope he soon gets the support, if not of Stanford, then of some other college. Like Harvard, or Yale, or Oxford, or Cambridge. They’re exclusive places now. But they don’t have to be, in the future.

Update: Thrun posts, on his personal site:

I did on my own volition resign from my full tenured position, effective April 1, 2011. However, this was primarily to continue my employment with Google, and it predates my online classes.


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You seem to be assuming that Stanford would not let him continue under their auspices. There isn’t anything in what you quoted to indicate that. Perhaps he just thought there was a brighter future for what he is trying to do outside of Stanford.

Posted by samadamsthedog | Report as abusive

Check out the OCW stuff out there. http://www.ocwconsortium.org. Yale has a little OCW coursework online. MIT is the biggest OCW provider by far.

Posted by Woltmann | Report as abusive

Isn’t it classic “Clayton Christensen” that this can’t happen at Stanford?

I think the good prof has the right non-artificial intelligence to get out.

Posted by jpersonna | Report as abusive

Great post, but “kids paying $30,000 for their education” aren’t going to Stanford.

Posted by EdCone | Report as abusive

I completed my BS back in 1995, the traditional way. I then returned to get my MS part-time in an online program offered by a large university in the Northeast. I was a little cautious at first but am now convinced this is the future of higher education. With modern technology – videotaped lectures, pdf course notes, electronic textbooks, interactive learning assignments, plus regular chat sessions with both the Instructor and the Professor, there’s really little remaining reason for bricks and mortar universities (at least at the graduate level, at the undergrad level you could argue that there’s value in the “college experience” of leaving home for the first time). It opens up a whole new set of opportunities for people who due to job and family responsibilities or geographical location are unable to physically attend school full or part time. As the 248 perfect scores in your example demonstrates, the elite universities are deluding themselves if they believe that all of the best and brightest are on their campuses.

Posted by RueTheDay | Report as abusive


We fight against the same crime.

Stanford did not say what I am saying is not true.

What’s your problem?

Posted by PeterCaoMing | Report as abusive

248 perfect scores out of 160,000 enrolled hardly qualifies as a success measured by “courses designed to make as many students as possible succeed”. Now Prof. Thrun has parachuted out of academia to the commercial world. As the article wonders, why? If the word “monetize” entered into this decision, it’s hardly a Khan Academy equivalent.

Posted by bobfoster | Report as abusive

There are quite a few people already who never learned from textbooks and fully rely on the internet resources. This type education might be very good for Internet applications, machine learning, social sciences, etc. I am happy that this type education is getting free. This makes social lifts easily accessible and might be better than income redistribution through taxes. In any case, the underlying competitiveness due to free access will provide much better performance and productivity.

But this will never work for the hard sciences like experimental physics, biology, medicine, engineering, etc. Simple voice instruction or texts/figures/tables are not enough here.

Posted by ikitov | Report as abusive

I believe it will be MIT, in a certain sense Stanford’s east coast competitor, that fills the gap.


Posted by DavidCIT | Report as abusive

It’s not as though Stanford is no longer going to be offering such online courses since one professor left. The Fall ML and AI classes were pilots. This spring there are about a dozen classes going on for free, such as:


At the bottom of that page you can see links to the other such courses.

Posted by lyricsboy | Report as abusive

Great statistics about Lithuanians and perfect scores, but did he say what percentage of the 160,000 eventually completed the class? That’s what I’d like to know…

Posted by dweld | Report as abusive

It would not be in the interest of Stanford or any other of the traditional elite university to build a virtual campus where classes are free. But one thing is true, like the revolution that changed the prices and distribution of CDs/DVDs, the disruption to the monopolies of traditional universities and textbook publisher could be in the works by the liks of Udacity.

Posted by SarwarB | Report as abusive

Who is this PeterCaoMing nutter? He’s hilarious!

Posted by chrism238 | Report as abusive

@dweld – about 90,000 enrolled for the AI course “advanced track”, of whom about 46,000 submitted the first homework; ~23,000 completed the mid-term exam; ~20,000 competed the end term exam. I took part in the course and my article here hopefully gives a flavour of it http://newsletter.alt.ac.uk/2011/11/what -can-we-learn-from-stanford-university%E 2%80%99s-free-online-computer-science-co urses/ Seb Schmoller

Posted by sebschmoller | Report as abusive

I’ve seen plenty of comments over the last few years arguing that traditional universities are overpriced, outmoded, and easily replaced by taped lectures.

Nothing against online learning — I spend enough time online myself, reading and learning, that it would be incredibly hypocritical for me to knock its potential!

Yet I can’t see it replacing traditional universities.

(1) College freshmen aren’t mature learners. Toss them at an online course and you will get weak results. Does the college structure help them develop as students?

(2) College is also about networking in various forms. Spending hours talking to and learning from other bright and talented youth, about anything and everything under the sun. Can the richness of that environment be replicated online?

(3) Universities teach the beginnings of adult independence. Harder to make that transition while blogging from your parents’ basement.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I see a continuing role for universities AS WELL AS vastly expanded online learning opportunities. If I ever have the time, I’d love to delve into MIT’s offerings.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Check out the full story on Thrun here http://theairspace.net/events/robotic-ma stermind/

Posted by BJGraham | Report as abusive

There is a good need for “weeder” courses as well as service courses. Not everyone is cut out to excel in every field. You can create a course anyone can do very well in, but that’s just making a very big round hole that can fit any square peg. For an institution aiming at academic excellence, it makes sense to match the holes and pegs more tightly, and encourage students to focus in areas that play to their strengths.

P.S. Monetization. Definitely. I’d do it too.

Posted by spiffy76 | Report as abusive

M.I.T. not only offers free online courses to anybody in the world, but also gives certificates to those who complete the courses with high marks.

Forbes recently wrote about this, too:

“M.I.T. Game-Changer: Free Online Education For All – Forbes”

Posted by Btherm | Report as abusive

There is already such a solution, Felix, of a tuition-free “virtual campus which could reach the whole world.”

University of the People (UoPeople) is a non-profit, tuition-free, online academic institution offering a viable solution for individuals around the world to attain higher education despite financial, geographic or societal constraints. With programs in Business Administration and Computer Science, UoPeople
has partnered with Yale University for research, New York University to accept students and Hewlett-Packard for internships.

UoPeople was founded in 2009 by educational entrepreneur Shai Reshef. To date, the non-profit University has accepted more than 1300 students from 126 countries around the world. Leading academics such as Dr. David Harris Cohen, Dr. Jack Goetz, Dr. Russell S. Winer, Dr. Alexander Tuzhilin and Dr. Preetha Ram are active leaders in the institution. The organization has gained the widespread support of over 550,000 people on Facebook and media throughout the world.

For more information: http://www.uopeople.org

Posted by UoPeople | Report as abusive

Well, I think Stanford’s mistake was shifting their free courses into a commercial outfit, Coursera. If they’d instead aimed to make the courses into credit-bearing university modules (and as a consequence introduced something along the lines of the European Credit Transfer System to the USA), then I’m sure they could have convinced Thrun to stay and be a major part of that opportunity, but they decided to spin it off and not make it part of the university.

As part of Stanford University, those courses would have a draw no commercial outfit could compete against, and Thrun as an academic would have wanted to be part of that.

But as Coursera, it’s a commercial outfit, and Thrun is an entrepreneur, and he knows that the first few players into the market are going to be the ones to profit. Why work as a salaried, tenured professor and leave the college to profit infinitely when he can set up his own company? In the commercial sphere, his name carries a fair bit of clout….

Posted by NiallBeag | Report as abusive

How do we know that the 248 perfect scorers were human?

Posted by ReflectoBucket | Report as abusive

Neither Stanford nor any other university in the US will have interest in free or even near free secondary education – which is what online coursework will lead to – despite (as demonstrated here) an affinity for the format. See http://heartiste.wordpress.com/2012/01/2 2/how-to-destroy-the-education-racket/

Posted by Calvin9000 | Report as abusive


They can perform a Voight-Kampff Empathy Test and get that all cleared up. ;-)

Posted by NashvilleHPC | Report as abusive

Computers and tablets are only assistants and a good teacher’s will always be needed.
However social networks such as facebook and YouTube as well as great resources including Wikipedia and Wolfram-Alpha are here to stay so that educators must use them in the teaching process.

Some time ago YouTube moved a lot of their educational content to a separate domain giving people access a broad set of educational videos.

However, some complaints include the variety of the content found there as well as the need for schools to register on YouTube under the academic section in order to show their videos, leaving out many academics, professionals and students not formally associated with mainstream schools which contribute with great videos.

Many academics are posting great educational videos and materials online. The only problem is to sort the good ones from the rest and present them in an organized manner.

This effort is being done by: http://utubersity.com which presents the best educational videos available on YouTube in an organized, easy to find way to watch and learn. It also links the videos to related content in Wikipedia or associated websites.

They are classified and tagged in a way that enables people to find these materials more easily and efficiently and not waste time browsing through pages of irrelevant search results.

The website also enhances the experience using other means such as recommending related videos, Wikipedia content and so on. There’s also a Spanish version called http://utubersidad.com

Posted by lfokp | Report as abusive

Open Educational Media and the Bandwidth Gap

Summary: If you really want to reach the world, you must use very simple low bandwidth materials.

Six years ago my family founded Humans Without Borders, an online education site involving methods I taught/used with critical care patients and families at Stanford Hospital, Clinics and surrounding community (see the paper, Haptic Medicine at http://www.21stcenturymed.org/fhti-hwb6- final.pdf or the site material http://www.21stcenturymed.org/hwb.org). Our purpose was to use the internet to
provide open access to rare healthcare teaching materials and methods primarily available to affluent and socially advantaged, but also in extending the reach of these precious teachings across physical borders to health care workers and individuals in remote locations, for use after a disaster and to address the disparities in healthcare. This we did, in French, Portuguese, English, and so on, and the site has between 6,000-10,000 new visitors a month… or roughly, a football stadium of people every year. The reason for writing is not to exclaim the project but to share a critical lesson for aspiring academics who will be creating material for on-line courses. To make Open Education a true reality, we must be aware the “Southern Global” regions are still bandwidth limited. Broadband Internet connections are extremely expensive in the developing world. Many users cannot afford them, and so have great difficulty accessing the Internet effectively and satisfactorily. To be unaware of this could inadvertently create an unintended isolation.

We who sit in offices crafting this material are mainly located in the northern hemisphere and think nothing of downloading movies or using the latest web and browser tools… The teaching material on the site is simple, lean, has very very few images, and zero ads. This is on purpose. We have developed the materials not for broadband access in the developed world but for slow Internet connection, for older browsers and operating systems, we do not use the latest web methods. Developing
teaching materials for the world, the whole world, not just bits of it, is a bit like sending a robot to Antarctica or outer space. You need to create solutions for
a computing environment other than your lab/office. Its the case that you don’t want to the latest and greatest, but the most reliable, the fastest, for the situation.

If you really want to reach the world, you must use very simple low bandwidth materials.

Posted by StillAtStanford | Report as abusive

Resources for Creating Low Bandwidth On-Line Content

The Web Guidelines for Low Bandwidth
http://www.aptivate.org/webguidelines/Ho me.html

UNESCO International Community on Open Education Resources Final Report
http://oerwiki.iiep.unesco.org/images/7/ 74/Access2OER_final_report_1.pdf

Posted by StillAtStanford | Report as abusive

This, more than anything else I’ve encountered in the growing movement to make educational materials online, suggests that we really are in the midst of a paradigm shift.

A minor clarification: if Thrun is / was a _Research_ Professor at Stanford, he would not have had tenure. While he would have been eligible for a renewable contract with a 6-year horizon, he would not have had a lifetime appointment.

Posted by gumption | Report as abusive

So here’s the story that I’ve heard from some TAs…

There were two CS classes that collaborated with the CS Department at Stanford to put their classes online. It turned out that Sebastian Thrun decided to do the same thing, but didn’t tell anyone about it. He even recruited some of his students to develop the software for the online class system, in the hopes of turning it into a startup.

Some CS profs got upset at the way he went about it and his apparent plans of turning this model into a startup.

Check out Stanford’s online education system here http://www.cs101-class.org/hub.php

Posted by anonstudent | Report as abusive

“There were students in Afghanistan, exfiltrating war zones to grab an hour of connectivity to finish the homework assignments.”

Do you have any proof for this claim, Felix_Salmon? Any proof whatsoever?

I’m sure there were IPs hitting the course from Afghanistan. Were they the same people who were “in a war zone” and “leaving it for an hour to finish up their homework”? *Probably not*, and it’s a little irresponsible for you to claim as much without substantiation.

Posted by SilasBarta | Report as abusive

I haven’t had time to read all the comments, but I have to add this. Thrun is doing this at no charge to the students, which is admirable, and life would be a lot nicer if that were a practicable way of organizing higher education. But there are real costs to doing all this, and somehow those real costs have to be covered. Foundations and grants and donations from people who believe in the mission may go part of the way, but I sincerely doubt that this venture can continue without a firm funding base. And nothing I have read indicates what that funding base is.

Posted by DonCoffin | Report as abusive

— “Thrun is doing this at no charge to the students, which is admirable, and life would be a lot nicer if that were a practicable way of organizing higher education. But there are real costs to doing all this, and somehow those real costs have to be covered.” —

If “this” consists of the lecturer, an RA or two, a couple techies and a business manager, and if I could take three such courses and in each be allowed the normal number of credits given for the course IRL, and the course covers, or even exceeds, what the course normally covers IRL, then (“this” X 3) yields a highly affordable and yet likely highly effective college semester.

So I think he’s covered “this”, and even “all this”. But if “this” meant Stanford campus and body and associates, yeah, that’s going to be a problem.

Posted by bobbybobby | Report as abusive

@ SarwarB – one opensource textbook and journal provider is InTech ( http://www.intechweb.org/ ). Free textbooks and original research publications. Exemplary service to science and learning.

(quote) “InTech is a world leader in the provision of STM Open Access content, including books and journals. We break down the traditional barriers to becoming published and provide authors with new choices and an equal opportunity to share their ideas and the results of their research with the global scientific community.”

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

No doubt this is exciting, I took AI course and am likely going to enroll in new Udacity course. I definitely think there is an important role for this kind of one-to-many self-paced online learning, particularly for subjects like Comp Sci. And the fact that it is being delivered for free or low cost will have a profound effect on higher ed.

But I am nervous about over-hyping this approach. Time and time again, high attrition rates in online learning can be traced back to social isolation. Here’s a long but great article about the pitfalls and expectations of self paced learning by Scott Grey of O’reilly School of Tech: http://blog.oreillyschool.com/…

Among other things, Scott’s article stresses the importance of mentorship and social interaction (learner -learner and facilitator to learner) in online learning environments based on two decades of facilitating online learning classes in comp sci. This is missing from the Khan Academy and Udacity Model. Thats what we’re working on at TechChange with courses like Mobiles for Int’l Development, Tech Tools for Emergency Management, and more. Check us out here: http://techchange.org

I’d love to see more universities and online learning providers find a balance between these one-to many types of self-paced learning opportunities and dynamic social learning environments for delivering online courses. As long as Blackboard is the common denominator I do worry that we wont see much innovation with the latter any time soon.

Posted by ncmart | Report as abusive

I enrolled in Intro to Databases and Machine Learning programs. Those courses were outstanding, much better than the classroom courses. Definitely Prof Thrun has taken a giant step in shaping future of education. Students from around the world will benefit from these initiatives. Kudos!

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Posted by shihan1234 | Report as abusive

I’m a high school drop out thats been wanting to continue my education for a while. I can’t afford to attend even the most affordable community colleges in my area, but while Udacity may not get me a degree, I’m happy to be learning.

Posted by dbjay417 | Report as abusive

The new mooc wave is a boon for education. For too long too many institutions have been charging too much! I reckon the Europeans push the MOOC scence even further. iversity ( https://iversity.org/courses ), is shaking things up as well. They have 3 courses where you can get ECTS credits-credits that are interchangeable between in european universities. exciting times.

Posted by TommyByrne | Report as abusive