Sebastian Thrun: Keynote at Sloan-C Conference!

Dear Commons Community,

This was the second day of the Sloan-C Conference here in Orlando.  The highlight of the day for me was the keynote address by Sebastian Thrun, long time research professor at Stanford University and more recently, founder of Udacity.  His presentation, Democratizing Higher Education, focused on how he took his Stanford graduate level class online, made it tuition free and ended up with 160,000 students enrolled world-wide.  Underlying this class was a teaching model that emphasized student engagement, and problem solving.

His pedagogical approach is well-familiar to those of us who have experience teaching online but the scale of his course is most impressive.  His work has done a great deal to launch the MOOC phenomenon that a number of private colleges and universities are considering.

Thrun recently created Udacity, an online university, which offers college-level courses free of charge. With a dozen courses underway, Udacity presently has had over 800,000 student course enrollments.

During the question period, I asked him why he did not establish a center at Stanford rather than create his own private university.  His response was that Stanford or any university for that matter did not have the flexibility and nimbleness to launch such a radically different approach to teaching and learning.  He also emphasized that Udacity was probably best suited for adult and life-long learning rather than full-degree programs.



  1. Susan,

    Thanks for your post. Thrun has become an interesting player in online learning, I agree with you that it remains to be seen what will be the impact of MOOCs on how we educate our college students. In speaking with a number of colleagues at the Sloan-C Conference there is a lot of skepticism.


  2. Thanks for posting about Sebastian Thrun! I’m a big fan of Stanley, and Udacity.

    Udacity seems much like a mini Coursera, which does seems to be suffering from too much bloat these days. Did you know that both trace their roots back to the same school and the same department? You might like this insightful post by one of the faculty there, Jennifer Widom, that details how they were initiated by similar ideas about teaching, originating with Daphe Koller’s (co-founder of Coursera) call for a “flipped classroom”, and frustration with Standord’s PD operation.

    Thrun is known for making radically different ideas become reality and 800k students (or robots) isn’t surprising. His first MOOC was an AI class and his lab is famous for winning the DARPA Grand Challenge. If he said jump, many of us would, and would gladly! I don’t mean to downplay his contributions to teaching and do think Udacity is wonderful. Just that the adoption curve for Udacity, and perhaps Coursera is biased by a “famous founder” type effect and maybe we see the enrollment numbers and automatically think it’s got to be great.

    Also, if Thrun really wants to democratize education, what is he doing at Stanford? Berkley is less than an hour away.