Sebastian Thrun’s class on artificial intelligence was attended by a couple of hundred Stanford students, but he also offered the course free online and 160,000 students signed up. All 210 students who attained a perfect score came from the online group. While not a surprising result considering the disparity in group sizes, it does indicate that online may be a viable medium for college classes in the future and demonstrates that online education has the advantage of being able to reach many more people simultaneously than traditional education.
“I like to compare it to film,” Mr. Thrun told me at a coffee shop between Stanford and Mountain View, Calif., where his day job is running Google X, the company’s experimental lab. “Before film there was theater—small casting companies reaching 300 people at a time. Then celluloid was invented, and you could record something and replicate it. A good movie wouldn’t reach 300 but 3,000, and soon 300,000 and soon three million. That changed the economics.”
He believes that education is undergoing a similar change and that the next big thing will be college-level Massive Open Online Courses and Seminars. Online supplementary education is already being delivered at elementary and high school level via apps like Khan Academy and Youtube’s EDU Portal. Advantages of the new model in education are obvious. Students can take material at their own pace, rewinding a video as necessary and taking breaks when sick or distracted. Teachers save time through computerized grading. Students save money through economies of scale.
Most important, the system promotes driven and talented students who might otherwise be denied access to higher education: a kid in Afghanistan, a young mother in Scotland, an ignored pupil in Detroit. From Mr. Thrun’s class (translated into 44 languages) Udacity chose 200 students based purely on performance and, a few weeks ago, forwarded their resumes to companies including Amazon, Bank of America and BMW.
However not everyone agrees that this leap forward marks the end of established brick and mortar universities. Edward Tenner argues that increased quality of online education will actually increase competition for places at the elite universities.