Udacity: Start-up Education

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Came across this article on The Chronicle of Higher Edthis morning: “Stanford Professor Gives Up Teaching Position, Hopes to Reach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up

Sebastian Thrun, a computer science prof., has given up his tenured track position at Stanford to teach programming courses online through his start-up venture Udacity. Thrun began offering online videos as a part of one of his face-to-face courses at the university and soon realized the online component was more popular than the in-person lectures. Of the 200 students enrolled in the course, only 30 continued coming to class. The Chronicle article notes that “the experience taught the professor that he could craft a course with the interactive tools of the Web that recreated the intimacy of one-on-one tutoring.”

There are several things that really struck as I was reading the article and exploring Udacity.

  1. I find it kind of ironic that Thrun has found that a course mediated through technology provides a more “intimate,” one-on-one teaching and learning experience for him and his students. One of the critiques of online learning is that it doesn’t provide a personal experience that is conducive to learning. The feedback loops between the instructor and student that an in-person course provides are often missing from an online learning environment–especially one that attracts students by the hundreds or thousands.
  2. How did Thrun measure the effectiveness of his online learning component? Were the students viewing the course online performing as well or better than the 30 who kept coming to class? Did students perform better that semester than in previous semesters?
  3. Exactly what “interactive tools” is Thrun using in this online environment? Since the first course is at the intro-level, I’d be interested in enrolling in the course myself (with all my free time), just to see what it’s all about.
  4. It’s worth nothing that, again, this is a computer science course–which remains consistent with most of the other popular courses being taught online.
  5. Thrun hopes that the upcoming online programing course at Udacity will attract over 500,000 students. How do you maintain a number that high? How do you get feedback and measure progress from that many students?
  6. Students who complete the course will receive a signed certificate of completion from Thrun and his venture partner David Evans, professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia. What constitutes “completion?” Watching all the videos? Successfully completing all the work? And who is in charge of assessing all that work?

I’m really curious to see how all of this will pan out.


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