The following interview appeared in German on today’s Spiegel Online. It is reproduced here in English for the benefit of UW-Madison readers. – Ed.
He was a professer at the elite private university Stanford. But Sebastian Thrun, expert in artificial intelligence, had enough of the old university ways. In this interview, he explains why he now only wants to teach via the Web and what universities have in common with ex-girlfriends
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Thrun, you have given up your professorship at Stanford and now want change higher education with the online university Udacity . How do you explain that to your colleagues?
Thrun: Many of my colleagues would also like to teach online, but would not necessarily want to leave the university. To be a Stanford professor is nice. But it’s like being a mountain climber: The climbing is always more fun than standing on the summit.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are opposed to education only for the elite, opposed to expensive tuition fees and consider grades to be a flaw in the education system. Why does someone like you go to an elite university like Stanford?
Thrun: Because I too came to this realization only recently. For me it was a learning process. After all, I have long participated in this system. My course this past year has changed me rather strongly.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mean your world lecture, in which you, together with your colleagues, have conducted your Stanford lecture on artificial intelligence online, including testing. Anyone in the world could enroll free of charge. What have you learned?
Thrun: Through the Internet Instruction project I’ve realized what incredible power this medium has. When we got 160 000 applications, we were asked by Stanford to accept no more students. 23,000 students took an exam at the end and passed. I literally got thousands of thank you e-mails. With this one lecture I have influenced more people than ever before in my entire academic career.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you miss about the real university?
Thrun: That’s like falling in love with a new woman and being asked, what do you miss about your ex? Basically, nothing. Although the work with my graduate students at Stanford was always very good. But for me it’s not about one or the other. My goal is to reach people who cannot be reached otherwise.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have taught 20 years at universities. How should students learn today?
Thrun: Students learn best when they have to solve a problem themselves. What really works are not the traditional lectures. For most people they are too fast or difficult to understand. I myself remember a German professor who a few years ago held an introductory lecture on artificial intelligence – that is, in my own field – and I did not understand anything!
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why has virtual learning not been able to get more traction to date?
Thrun: I’m stumped. In spite of modern media, we still use teaching methods developed 1,000 years ago. Instruction should work like a good movie. It must be so exciting that you just can’t turn it off until it’s over. I think universities are often less innovative than they would like.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are the disadvantages of online teaching?
Thrun: Musicianship involves the hands; that can be taught online only to a limited degree. In addition, direct interaction with people is missing. If they are pursuing a Ph.D. or are research active, then meeting in person is very important.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: With two other robotics researchers, you have now founded the company Udacity. What can one learn from you?
Thrun: You can participate in two lecture courses. My colleague teaches programming, and by the end of seven weeks, you can create your own search engine. I show my students how to program a self-propelled car. We explain these things not in the abstract; rather, as part of the training you have to build something yourself. That has a very unique value.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Not everything is free. How has the response been?
Thrun: We have over 80,000 students, which I consider a very viable number. But we have also learned from our experience so far, and we now use better recording equipment and have a good system for receiving feedback.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are these online students only Americans and Europeans?
Thrun: No, those account for two-thirds, but a third also comes from emerging and developing countries.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about people who have no access to the necessary technology?
Thrun: There are those. But in today’s traditional colleges there are also those living in the wrong country, who are too old, too young or sick, and those living in the U.S who can’t pay $ 10,000 tuition. I think it’s about giving more people access to education, even if you cannot immediately reach all people.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You also work for Google. What is the influence of that company on Udacity?
Thrun: By day I work at Google, at night I record my video podcasts for Udacity. There are three founders and a company that joined more recently for financing. Google owns none of it and has no influence.
Interview by Jonas Leppin
Translation by G. Petty