Stanford AI Professor Leaves to Start Online Education Startup

Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and the man who led the team that designed Stanley, Stanford’s famous self-driving car that won the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005, announced yesterday in Munich that he is planning to leave Stanford to work on his online education startup, Udacity.

Udacity’s core program incorporates teaching classes with online interactive videos, a concept Thrun prototyped this past fall with the CS221 – Artificial Intelligence: Principles and Techniques, a Stanford course Prof. Peter Norvig and he redesigned this past fall after taking it over from Prof. Andrew Ng. Norvig and Thrun massively modified the class to include a significant online component, and even offered a free online version of the class for anyone with an internet connection. A record-shattering 185,000 people from around the world initially signed up.

Stanford’s version of the class still contained a lecture component twice a week, but it became clear to students early on that the real focus of learning would be online. Thrun and Norvig posted interactive videos on the class website that explained various concepts in one to five minutes and asked students to answer multiple choice or fill-in-the-correct-value questions based on the material. Several hundred videos were posted, including homework videos whose interactive components were graded.

Response to the class was mixed, and by the end of the quarter only a small percentage of the over 200 enrolled students were regularly showing up to lecture. Many students, myself included, found that the online videos were very often more informative than lecture.

Thrun hopes to use this online course model attract up to 500,000 students, not too ambitious a goal considering the success of the online version of CS221. One of the first courses to be offered will be called “Building a Search Engine”, in which Thrun will teach students who are not required to have any programming experience how to build search engines similar to Google, where both Thrun and Norvig currently work (Thrun directs Google’s self-driving car project and Norvig is Google’s Director of Research), though I’m guessing these search engines won’t be anywhere near as complex.

In any event, best of luck to Thrun in his new pursuits. For the full article announcing the decision, click here.

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