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Can one professor teach 500,000 students at once?

Former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun has already taught a class of 160,000. Now he's aiming to teach 500,000 students.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
In this file photo students from the University of Rochester graduate at the Eastman Quadrangle in Rochester, NY. Professor Sebastian Thrun aims to teach a class of 500,000 students.

That’s what former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun aims to do.

Sound impossible? Well, he’s already taught a class of 160,000 students. As Felix Salmon recounts:

Thrun told the story of his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class, which ran from October to December last year. It started as a way of putting his Stanford course online — he was going to teach the whole thing, for free, to anybody in the world who wanted it. With quizzes and grades and a final certificate, in parallel with the in-person course he was giving his Stanford undergrad students. He sent out one email to announce the class, and from that one email there was ultimately an enrollment of 160,000 students. Thrun scrambled to put together a website which could scale and support that enrollment, and succeeded spectacularly well.

Just a couple of datapoints from Thrun’s talk: there were more students in his course from Lithuania alone than there are students at Stanford altogether. There were students in Afghanistan, exfiltrating war zones to grab an hour of connectivity to finish the homework assignments. There were single mothers keeping the faith and staying with the course even as their families were being hit by tragedy. And when it finished, thousands of students around the world were educated and inspired. Some 248 of them, in total, got a perfect score: they never got a single question wrong, over the entire course of the class. All 248 took the course online; not one was enrolled at Stanford.

And I loved as well his story of the physical class at Stanford, which dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.

 Inspired by that experience, Thrun has now founded Udacity, a private online university. As Nick DeSantis of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

One of Udacity’s first offerings will be a seven-week course called “Building a Search Engine.” It will be taught by David Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia and a Udacity partner. Mr. Thrun said it is designed to teach students with no prior programming experience how to build a search engine like Google. He hopes 500,000 students will enroll.

Teaching the course at Stanford, Mr. Thrun said, showed him the potential of digital education, which turned out to be a drug that he could not ignore.

“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” he said. “And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

That Wonderland will be a serious challenge to traditional chalk-and-talk universities — and a wonderful opportunity to democratize knowledge around the globe.

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