Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs, Angry Birds, and Lifelong Learning

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We’re speaking with a hot name in disruptive innovation, Sebastian Thrun.  He’s part of our conversation on hacking higher education. He’s the founder of the Google X lab, immersed in robotics and artificial intelligence, in building driverless car, but he’s more than all that.  Three years ago he offered his Stanford University introduction to artificial intelligence class — online for free — and quickly had an enrollment of over 160,000 students from all over the world. It was the start of a craze in so-called MOOCs – massive open online courses – a craze he’s still retooling.  The company he started in his living room, Udacity, is now set on reinventing higher ed inside a computer on a billion-dollar scale.  We asked him for his essential principles in remaking the university.


  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/22549175@N02/ Robert W Peabody III

    Ha ! a 3% completion rate!
    How to improve? …..human contact
    Also he wants to move ed to ent – tricks from the news media!
    Gee, doesn’t it seem like the suggestion here are just riding a wave?

  • hilde45

    Perhaps the conversation had to be short, but I wish that Chris, proud humanist that he is, had challenged Thrun’s vision of a technological future for higher education. That vision is full of techno-optimism (immensely profitable for only a few). It implicitly, describes a world where there are very few people interacting in ways which Chris knows have been major (and positive) influences in his own life. Here are a few unchallenged assumptions:

    Thrun said that Harvard and MIT were good for those who could go, but what about the rest–who can’t afford it or have busy lives. Unchallenged assumption: that the system of quality face to face education does not need to be expanded; all we need to do is figure out how to technologize a second tier of education.

    Thrun said that learning needs to involve engagement and dialogue. Unchallenged assumption: that the kind of interaction and dialogue provided by computers (or people employed as kinds of MOOC-adjuncts) is adequate.

    Thrun said that we need more rock-star professors to engage people. Unchallenged assumptions (2): First, that education is not something that should emanate from communities; that it’s in no way a local, cultural phenomenon–it’s totally scalable. Second, that it’s good for society to lay off thousands of teachers who have developed skills and who are ready to spend their career caring and teaching other people. In other words, the economy’s imperative toward efficiency is more important than the “horizontal” need for a world of teachers and students, learning together.

    Thrun said he was enjoying his son’s experience learning but that elementary levels of education requires custodial care. Question I would have asked: Would you be satisfied if your son turned down entry to Stanford in lieu of a MOOC education?

    Oh, and by the way: John Dewey talked about education as life-long learning over a hundred years ago. It requires that we champion the interests and values that children themselves have (so, Thrun is in agreement) but it also requires a commitment to democracy (respect for community, local control, and resistance to the leveling forces of technology and capitalism–which Thrun does not seem to share).

    • https://www.flickr.com/photos/22549175@N02/ Robert W Peabody III

      Thrun said that we need more rock-star professors to engage people.

      His use of the movie analog was based on the Hollywood model of filmmaking – an
      extremely passive model that presupposes knowledge over lived experience. In Hollywood cinema, the protagonist experiences the world, while the viewer experiences only the protagonist’s mind.

  • hilde45

    http://radioopensource.org/sebastian-thrun-college-moocs/

    Perhaps the conversation had to be short, but I wish that Chris, proud humanist that he is, had challenged Thrun’s vision of a technological future for higher education. That vision is full of techno-optimism (immensely profitable for only a few). It implicitly, describes a world where there are very few people interacting in ways which Chris knows have been major (and positive) influences in his own life. Here are a few unchallenged assumptions:

    Thrun said that Harvard and MIT were good for those who could go, but what about the rest–who can’t afford it or have busy lives. Unchallenged assumption: that the system of quality face to face education does not need to be expanded; all we need to do is figure out how to technologize a second tier of education.

    Thrun said that learning needs to involve engagement and dialogue. Unchallenged assumption: that the kind of interaction and dialogue provided by computers (or people employed as kinds of MOOC-adjuncts) is adequate.

    Thrun said that we need more rock-star professors to engage people. Unchallenged assumptions (2): First, that education is not something that should emanate from communities; that it’s in no way a local, cultural phenomenon–it’s totally scalable. Second, that it’s good for society to lay off thousands of teachers who have developed skills and who are ready to spend their career caring and teaching other people. In other words, the economy’s imperative toward efficiency is more important than the “horizontal” need for a world of teachers and students, learning together.

    Thrun said he was enjoying his son’s experience learning but that elementary levels of education requires custodial care. Question I would have asked: Would you be satisfied if your son turned down entry to Stanford in lieu of a MOOC education?

    Oh, and by the way: John Dewey talked about education as life-long learning over a hundred years ago. It requires that we champion the interests and values that children themselves have (so, Thrun is in agreement) but it also requires a commitment to democracy (respect for community, local control, and resistence to the leveling forces of technology and capitalism–which Thrun does not seem to share).

    • theCrowdisUntruth

      Not one like? There, for sure, go pearls before the distracted (where are they off to I wonder?). ROS remains relevant because of input like this. That’s its value. Thus, ROS is AFAICS, one of the few sites that’s doing what Thrun talks about doing…online.

      Thank you, hilde45, for challenging those assumptions.

      Yes, and thank you too, Sebastian Thrun, for the time.

      The weird thing is there’s enough computing power around the world to plan and implement suggestions like the ones here http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2014/0114cleveland.html

      So why keep on with a world based on something like an endless Chinese Civil Service Exam…and its bilking purveyors? A New U should develop a program that allocates energy resources based on Schumacher’s appropriateness. First generally, for the world, and then find a state, province, county or town that’s willing to try it out [imagine it would rule out shipping US LNG to the Ukraine in a very short interval of time]. The program would also compute how many more nurses, teachers, and vet counselors are needed (and the cost of their training)…and that is what its public servants would arrange payment for, probably not too many more strip malls and/or horse racing subsidies.

      “In other words, the economy’s imperative toward efficiency is more important than the ‘horizontal’ need for a world of teachers and students, learning together.”

      So well said. I think there is quite a rising tide of folks that do indeed reject this notion of efficiency. As for growth, I’m pretty sure that we in this rising tide view the old sense of the numbers germane not relevant to a habitable world.

      College is time for philosphy. The opposite is a brainwashing system that can punish dissidents with automated spys on Windows 8 and IBM servers. Entrenched. This time there has to be a New U that gears ones philosophy for the long haul. All kinds of relentless reason and compromise, less stress on demands. There’s a place for demanding, but students have the time and resources to learn how to do the other thing.

      If there are impediments to compromise, they need to be examined. Liberal blind spots need to be discovered. If privilege bestows a blind spot, it needs to be examined, just as Christopher Lasch examined such. For me, media’s hype of the new conceptual world quantum mechanics has brought us to remains almost 100% hypocrisy. Why, you ask? So-called liberal media doesn’t know enough science to face squarely the challenges Rupert Sheldrake, for instance, has posed. And this isn’t rocket science, isn’t quantum mechanics. It’s biology. If we listened to Sheldrake, and ended up talking a little more humbly, maybe we’d be standing on the kind of less omniscient ground many conservatives stand on (who do not claim to know how the Great Spirit created what S/He created). Yes, many “liberals” will try to “balance” criticism of GMOs. Many went gung ho behind bombing Serbia, and to this day have no earthy idea what someone like Ramsey Clark had to say about the thing. We have blindspots too.

      One of my profs recommended Popper to me. For years I felt some guilt that I could have been a better activist if I’d read more of the dude. It was my fault I didn’t keep up with that prof, look him up and rap down, among other things…some Popper. Was there really time for such reading though? Dunno for sure now. I wasn’t the model student. Not the model achiever. The times extolled “thinking”…philosophy. And I could, like Dylan I thought, pursue philosophy on my own if I got weary of the hallowed halls and dropped out for spells framing houses.

      Such a short time we have. But when we’re young and strong we think we can recoup and retrain after whatever trajectories that don’t pan out. This generation faces the same hard challenge mine did. It must become conservative enough to realize that an economy that insists on selling texts for re-training too often is gonna end up an existential threat to the quality of ones life. Cut loose in a whirlwind of desires, potentials and possibilites (by default education and default media), the young, who hardly can achieve focus beyond the fog of our amusement zeitgeist, must, when they have no confidence derived from struggling yrs to earn…from somewhere find the confidence to anticipate where they can fit in…plus begin activating pronto for some homeostasis in the economy without which they will fit nowhere. Sustainable, rational homeostasis.

      Anyway, regarding career decisions, “New U” IMO should require all students at the beginning of each year to listen to the late John Heider’s words on interpreting signs of what constitutes an “emergency” (in which one has to act yesterday in response to some perception, or all hell well break loose in your life). http://www.humanmedia.org/catalog/program.php?cPath=27&products_id=150&osCsid=1c5a165af40507daf97b2d3aaf061e30

      Of course, while students have some years to determine what they’re going to do, the world generally is experiencing an emergency. Students have some time and some strength, and, as we are in a global crisis, perhaps a New U could stress “sunlight,” and support students in more fully comprehending whatever it lands on. We’re in July 1929, folks, and New U would be hip to the fact.

      If students know how things like the following work (which we don’t)…with a little sunlight…perhaps they can oppose them more resolutely [yeah, I'll quote Rasmus just as I did over in the Picketty discussion]:

      Manipulation “of global financial assets and speculative financial trading, on the one hand. That is, from return on capital from global stock & bond trading, foreign exchange speculation, interest, real estate, commodity futures, structured finance and derivatives in myriad proliferating forms, rents, and so forth—to mention just a short list. This is just money making money and doesn’t involve…”

      http://prn.fm/economists-discover-inequality-jack-rasmus/