Monday, January 13, 2014

Is everybody as tired of Sebastian Thrun as I am?

For those of you who have not heard of Thrun, he is a Stanford professor who helped to develop the idea of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  By any measure I should be attracted to Thrun's thinking - his interests in technology issues is well developed in a number of areas including driverless cars. By his own description he loves to work on big problems.  Fast Company gushed about him and his course in Artificial Intelligence that he taught with a colleague from Google -

Some 160,000 people sign up: young men dodging mortar attacks in Afghanistan, single mothers struggling to support their children in the United States, students in more than 190 countries. The youngest kid in the class is 10; the oldest is 70. Most struggle with the material, but a good number thrive. When the Professor ranks the scores from the final exam, he sees something shocking: None of the top 400 students goes to Stanford. They all took the class on the Internet. The experiment starts to look like something more.

I do not know how many times I have heard the 160,000 number bandied about.  But the number is meaningless unless you know the results of those signups (for a free course) - Udacity's normal completion rate is 3% (according to an All Things Digital interview with Thrun last July).    They did a minor experiment at San Jose State where the pass rate for three courses was between 20% and 44%.

Thrun claimed to be a leading edge educator based on his AI course - "It was this catalytic moment," Thrun says. "I was educating more AI students than there were AI students in all the rest of the world combined."   Yeah, right, even if you believe the numbers that he released about the course - where only one in eight students completed the course - that looks like a profound overstatement. 

At the end of 2013 Forbes did a long form interview where Thrun's ego showed through.  What bothers me most is how well he seems to get covered on a set of issues where he has very little actual experience or expertise.   Ultimately, there is a lot of opportunity for higher education to revise how it does stuff - including working on alternative ways to finance its operations and how to deliver content - what is a student or a course or even a degree are good questions.   But for even an idea guy like Thrun who has lived off the subsidies of Stanford to offer his AI course, it seems odd that so many outside of higher education have given this experiment so much credibility and seemingly ignored other more substantive thinkers on what needs to be done to change higher education.

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