Robotics Mastermind takes Education Online

Sebastian Thrun

Robotics guru Sebastian Thrun—a Google Fellow who pioneered their self-driving cars, and Stanford professor—has decided to turn away from traditional academia in favor of providing the world with a completely free online classroom. Thrun was inspired by Salman Khan (founder of Khan Academy), who created an educational mega-hive of video lectures in nearly every imaginable discipline.

Thrun looked at the 200 students he taught in his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class compared to the millions Khan had reached through Khan Academy had to question the differences in their roles as educators. He thought it was embarrassing he was only teaching 200 students so he decided to take it online. Thrun sent out an email offering up anybody on the web to take his class, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, concurrently online with the students attending Stanford. In the email he pointed out three major points. Online students would have the same homework assignments and exams as Stanford students taking CS221 on campus, students would be graded in the same way as Stanford students, and the entire course would be completely free.

After sending out the email, Thrun’s anticipated reaction was small—maybe 500 to 1000 students would sign up. But within days, Thrun had over 160,000 students enrolled for his online course. Intimidated by the prospect of teaching 800 times his normal amount of students, Thrun quickly set up a tech team, put together a rudimentary website, grabbed a camera and began recording point-of-view videos of him giving Artificial Intelligence (AI) lecture notes on a napkin with multi-colored gel pens. The lectures would begin with a short topic introduction followed by an overarching question and that question would turn into a quiz that the students would have to solve. Due to automatic grading systems managed via the web, students in Thrun’s course would receive instant feedback. As Thrun said at a presentation given at the Digital Life Design (DLD) conference, “The principle way of engagement is that the student have to think. And by doing this, we empower the student to learn new skills.

Thrun would record these lectures day and night much to the detriment of his sleeping patterns, married life, and physical health. Just one lecture would take approximately 15 hours to record. Mind you, he was still teaching the same class at Stanford University. Around two weeks into the semester, Thrun noticed something curious about his normally full class of 200 students, only around 30 students showed up. Confused by this trend, he sent a message out to his class asking why they were no longer attending. The general response: they preferred him in video. Students attend expensive premier universities like Stanford for access to the best and brightest professors, yet 85% of Sebastian Thrun’s AI class chose to watch him online instead.

The scope of the online initiative was huge though. Thrun had an army of over 2000 translators who rewrote the lessons in 44 different languages. By the power of the Internet, Thrun had more students from Lithuania in his online classroom than Stanford has students. Among that mass of 160,000 students many came forward to send emails to Thrun and communicate their appreciation. This excerpt came from an email that was sent from Afghanistan

“I spent the last few days under incoming mortar and rocket attacks, then dodging checkpoints under questionable legal status to exfiltrate a war zone to a third world air field until things settledown [sic]. I had about an hour of fairly solid internet connectivity to be able to get the assignments done, and still managed a respectable score. This is a typical week here for me.”

Another came from a single mother of two, working over 40 hours per week. While experiencing a bout of calamity in her personal and family life she almost dropped the class. She wrote…

“On November 13th, I gave up. I told myself that I was ridiculous to think I could justify continuing this class, taking this time, given all the other problems that surrounded me. And then that Monday morning, I checked my email… I stared at it for awhile. Then I sighed and told myself, ‘I can’t quit now.’ I took the midterm this weekend, mostly while holding a teething infant. None of my other issues have gone away. But I feel more determined than ever to see this through… for myself. Because I want to. Because it makes me feel good.”

Not all reactions were entirely positive. One father of a student taking the course sent an email to Thrun complaining that the material was structured like a typical university “weeder” class—that is to say a class that presents exceptionally difficult material not to motivate the students but with the intent of forcing the less impassioned to give up. In a moment of great humility, Thrun said, “It was absolutely true, in all my life of teaching—my 20 years of teaching at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford—I’d always been a tough teacher. I’d always given students really hard questions. I’d always let them fail. And would come to their rescue and make myself look really smart.”

Within the open-university containing Thrun’s virtual class, there was no need to weed down the students to a smaller class size. The challenge was not one of reduction but expansion. There was no precedent for knowing how to scale from teaching 200 to 160,000 students. In his journey to discover the best educational techniques, Thrun realized that most educators set their students up for failure, not success. He sees grades as being the main indicator to an educator of their own failings. To give a student an F or a D is an admittance that the professor failed to get them to A+ level.

“You can take the blue pill and go back to your lecture of 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill and seen wonderland.” — Sebastian Thrun

Halfway through the semester, he decided he should no longer grade his students using alphabetic metrics and focus on ensuring all his students had success and mastery of the material equivalent to that A+ level. Determined that it couldn’t be about harsh questions with infuriating answers that the students only had one chance at, Sturn changed the model. He kept the questions just as hard but implemented measures to assist the students when they answered incorrectly and allowed them multiple attempts to get the answer right. When students finally did, they would get the A. In his DLD talk, Thrun said, “When you’re trying to teach someone to ride a bicycle and they fail, you don’t just give them a D and then move onto the unicycle next week.” This situation is prevalent in the current education system though. In sequenced courses within Mathematics, often student will struggle through a course receive a C, or D and then move on to the next level, set up for failure. Thrun sees the online platform of guided exploratory learning as a way of undoing that poorly made system.

In Thrun’s online class, the new approach worked. There were over 200 people who received a perfect score—every question asked, every quiz, every homework assignment answered correctly. At Stanford, none of his students achieved perfect scores.

Thrun Lecturing

Another glacial problem when teaching 160,000 people is how to make the experience personal. It’s common wisdom that large class sizes are detrimental to learning and the best way to provide the most intimate learning experience is to shrink the class down to fifteen students, max. But that isn’t the case when educating 160,000 people separately. When the students are able to access the lessons whenever and wherever they like, they engage in a quasi-one-on-one session with Thrun—he becomes less of a professor spouting knowledge, and more of a tutor working with each student toward success.

Coming off the success of the AI class, Thrun says he can no longer teach at Stanford University. He says he was presented with the red pill and the blue pill. “You can take the blue pill and go back to your lecture of 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill and seen wonderland.”

Thrun has given up tenure at tenure at Stanford to launch his own platform for online teaching called Udacity. The first class offered by Udacity is a 7-week introduction to computer science designed to take people with no knowledge of programming and teach them how to build their own search engine by the end of the program. Thrun aims to have 500,000 students enroll in Udacity’s first course.

University teaching hasn’t really changed in form in the past 1000 years. Sebastian Thrun believes he can take what he learned from the Artificial Intelligence class he taught at Stanford and apply it on an even larger scale with Udacity. Either way, enjoy the break; class starts February 20th.

Image Credit: Mu-43

  • grsimari
    • Blake J. Graham

      @grsimari Those are both excellent links to introduce.

      Khan Academy does a great job of providing the capacity for lecture/homework flipping. Even in instances where teachers don’t adopt the model, students will watch the lectures on their own time and use class periods to complete the homework. In other situations, it’s always great to have on demand resources for working through topics one didn’t learn completely in lecture.

      This isn’t to say that there is no place for the lecture any longer—it just has to perform a slightly different role moving forward.

  • John Cragin PhD

    As long as you are imagining what might be, consider this. What if people could acquire the most common and important business knowledge, skills and insight in an asynchronous learning context where they were actually part of a virtual reality company with real products, people, competitors, vendors? Then make that available free or for credit (user choice) to anyone. Take that to the next level – two completely turnkey MBAs that have already been approved by the Higher Learning Commission (US accrediting body)? Sebastian, not everyone can become an IT expert. Some of us need to run the business. Take your vision to the next level. Like the driverless car, it is already here. See (

    • Blake J. Graham

      @John Cragin PhD Cool concept. Keep us advised as the program grows!

    • jeremystiffler

      @John Cragin PhD I love VLC, interned for you guys a few summers ago. Please tell Chris and my buddy Steve hello!

      • John Cragin PhD

        @jeremystiffler@John Cragin PhD

        Nice to hear from you Jeremy.

        I will pass along your hello to Steve.

        The level of participation beyond introductions seems pretty low for this group.

        Maybe everyone is in agreement or busy (good news).

        I think Sebastian has thrown a big rock in this pond and it is going to make waves for some time to come. Today I asked the VLC team what they think about offering our MBA for $10-$25 per course to thousands of students. I also asked what vested interests in the academic community would think about that or student cohorts with thousands of students. It was an interesting discussion.

        Keep up the good work.


        • jeremystiffler

          @John Cragin PhD Well it is certainly fascinating work. The beauty is in the simplicity and analogies. I was watching a few of his videos. The only change would be to have the assessment presented at the beginning to lead the video instead of at the end. I do enjoy how his videos always begin with the answer to the previous questions, motivates me to watch it. :)

          All the best for the VLC team!! ~Jeremy

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