Udacity founder: MOOCs can help the economy, even if they can’t replace college

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Sebastian Thrun was instrumental in building Google’s self-driving car and Glass projects, and helped launch the company’s Google X wing to spearhead “moonshot” projects like Project Loon. But, as he explained on this week’s Structure Show podcast, Thrun’s latest endeavor, online-education startup Udacity, might have an even bigger impact on the world than his futuristic technologies.

The interview covers the promises and limitations of online education — from the misconception that massive open online courses, or MOOCs, should be considered replacements to traditional university educations, to the importance of training all students in the ways of data. Here are the highlights, but anyone interested in the evolution of online education will want to hear the whole thing.

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Udacity was never about replacing Stanford

“Part of the problem with the public dialogue is that some people have very quickly moved forward to tout what we do at Udacity and our partner companies as kind of a replacement for college,” Thrun said. That kind of positioning, he added, has “unnecessarily polarized the field.”

Of all people, Thrun — who has taught for years and still teaches at Stanford — should understand the differences between the two media. In his mind, platforms like Udacity should be complementary to colleges and aim to reach people who don’t have access to schools (for any number of reasons) or who need to learn specific skills. That’s part of the reason why technology companies, rather professors, teach so many of Udacity’s courses.

“In the end of the day, a lot of us are really in it for innovation, for really changing the access that people have. Most of our students right now would never ever be able to go to a physical campus, and now we can reach them with education at home, and also the ability to be very contemporary,” Thrun explained.

While college professors might teach generally the same material year after year, he added, “In this new medium, we can get companies into the driver’s seat who really take bleeding-edge material that might only be fresh for three years, but it’s very easy to replace it.”

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Yes, there are limitations

“It turns out online is not for everybody, for some people face-to-face works better,” Thrun acknowledged. “And some of the data that we returned showed lower success rates as you’d find in face to face.” Although, he added, the company has improved success rates over time by analyzing data around students’ performance and engagement.

But other challenges remain — like reaching every student who might benefit from this type of education platform.  Udacity (and its peers like Coursera and EdX) do reach broad broad demographic ranges but, Thrun said, “[T]ruth-telling is that we reach young professionals, age 24 to 34, more than other segments. We reach very few 80-year-olds at this point, partly because you have to be computer literate to really engage.”

You also need a broadband connection, which eliminates two-thirds of the world, and, in most cases, must be able to speak English.

But when MOOCs work, they work

Thrun said he recently calculated scores for a group of about 200 Stanford students who took a particular course, along with some 23,000 who completed it on Udacity, and found that the top 412 were all online students, with the best Stanford student coming in at No. 413.

“And I think it speaks a lot for the potential of this medium,” he said. “It also speaks for the fact that our existing universities, as beautiful as they are — they’re certainly the world’s best system — by virtue of being somewhat exclusive, fail in identifying every single talented person on the planet.”

Want proof? Udacity’s introductory computer science class teaches students how to build a search engine, and, Thrun said, “Some of the best students in the project space came back with search engines that would blow your mind. … [Two students recently] came up with ways to present video as the result of a search that I believe is significantly better, and I showed it to a few friends at a major search engine company and they actually said, ‘Wow, that’s quite amazing.'”

Another course, in which Google engineers taught students how to build online games in HTML5, has spawned a few startups, Thrun added.

Learning Python in Udacity.

Learning Python in Udacity.

Training workers, not shaping minds

So really, Thrun sees Udacity, at least, as less of a cheaper, online version of Stanford and more of a place where Stanford grads — and anyone, really — can learn the technological skills they haven’t yet learned.

“I will be satisfied with what we do if it can make a material impact on the skills gap,” he said. “… In this country alone, we have 2 to 3 million open positions in technology and we can’t fill them. Every company that needs technologists complains about they can’t find skilled labor, even today. At the same time, we have people who are currently unemployed and can’t even get into jobs. There we see the biggest opportunity for us at this point.”

One of the most important skills people can learn, he noted, is how to understand and work with data. Indeed, as we’ll cover at our Structure Data conference in March with everyone from Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley to Vern Brownell, CEO of quantum computer pioneer D-Wave, data analysis is underpinning all sorts of new businesses and understanding of our world.

“I generally believe people should be data savvy and we should teach statistics in high school … and the reason is the world today really revolves around analytics,” Thrun said. “… So the ability to think data, the ability to speak data, to understand the power of data, I think everything citizen on this planet should understand, because it’s so powerful.”

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user HarshLight.

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