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.
May 22, 2014
- Shai Reshef, founder and president of University of the People, a free, non-profit, online university;
- Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character;
- Sebastian Thrun, cofounder of Udacity and Google X, developer of the Google driverless car and Google Glass.
- Margaret Doherty, Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University.
- Evan Charles and Dan Pickett, founders of Launch Academy, a ten week coding bootcamp.
Continuing our series on higher ed, we’re hacking our way to a better model; call it New U. There won’t be a football team or a building and grounds department and maybe no president and no tenure. We might think of more adjuncts with more power. We could surely MOOC up in order to spend way down and eliminate the frats, kegs, mixers and majors. Where would you start in reimagining the American university?
- Paul Tough’s article in the New York Times, “Who Gets to Graduate?“
When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.
The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.
- Shai Reshef discussing “How Much Does it Cost to Educate All Those Currently Priced Out of Education?“
Realistically, it will only take a drop in the bucket in relation to the billions floating within the higher education industry. To exemplify how insignificant the support needed to reach individuals currently priced out of education is, take the recently launched $6 billion fundraising campaign at the University of Southern California and divide by 1000; the average $300 million university endowment in the U.S. and divide by 50; or the interest Harvard earned every 10 hours last year. Either way, the solution is $6 million: a tiny price in the world of higher education but a number that has the capacity to educate the world over.
- Thomas Frank in Salon, “Congratulations, class of 2014: You’re totally screwed“
- This interview with Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, “A Q&A with “Godfather of MOOCs” Sebastian Thrun after he disavowed his godchild“
May 19, 2014
By Max Larkin
We’re sending along some free advice for aspiring artists from the ones who’ve made it. Whether to go to school, and for how long? If not, what do you do instead? It’s a topic discussed online, on stage and off, and continuously among the artists. Be sure to add your voice.
Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker art critic
[As a teacher,] my aim is to help kids realize that they’re artists already, or that maybe they don’t really want to do it, which is more than fine. They’ve saved themselves a lot of grief, and they can get on with their lives.
I tell them that I’m not interested in educating their minds, I’m interested in sophisticating them, which is different. Sophistication is knowledge that’s acquired in the course of having a purpose. You know why you want the information at the moment that you put your hand on it. You’re not just storing it up for a rainy day.There’s nothing innately relevant or innately irrelevant to an artist. If their minds and spirits can’t put the stuff in order, then they’re not artists. Very often the flashiest, most seemingly talented person turns out to be not an artist at all, and some hopeless klutz ends up being Jackson Pollock.
Andrew Fish, painter
I attended SVA but didn’t actually get my degree. Like many in a long tradition of dropping out, I was anxious to get to work. I was going into debt, working in art galleries and as an artist assistant, and making paintings in my own studio. I even organized a show for my work at a New York gallery. I was thinking that I was already doing the thing I went to art school to learn how to do. And why continue to go into debt?
What I didn’t take into consideration was how important the community was. It’s really hard to see the bigger picture when you’re 19 or 20 years old. And you have no idea how much your attitudes about things will change by the time you’re 40.
I fluctuate between being proud of my education (self-directed, experiential, and comprised of workshops, classes, and mentorships) and being defensive about my lack of official, institutional certification. But I’m still a painter and making some of the best paintings I’ve ever made, so maybe it doesn’t matter how I got here, just that I kept going.
Noah Bradley, environmental artist
I have a diploma from the best public art school in the nation. Prior to that I attended the best private art school in the nation. I’m not some flaky, disgruntled art graduate, either. I have a quite successful career, thankyouverymuch.
But I am saddened and ashamed at art schools and their blatant exploitation of students. Graduates are woefully ill-prepared for the realities of being professional artists and racked with obscene amounts of debt. By their own estimation, the cost of a four year education at RISD is $245,816. As way of comparison, the cost of a diploma from Harvard Law School is a mere $236,100.
Don’t do it. Don’t start your career with debilitating debt. Please. I beg you. Think long and hard whether you’re willing to pay student loan companies $3000 every single month for the next 10 years.
I dropped out of NYU, moved out of my parent’s house, got my own place, and survived on my own.
I would make demo tapes and send them around; then I would jump on my bike and pretend to be Lady Gaga’s manager. I’d make $300 at work and spend it all on Xeroxes to make posters. Lady Starlight and I would spin vinyl in my apartment, sewing our bikinis for the show and listening to David Bowie and the New York Dolls. We thought, “What could we do to make everybody so jealous?” We did it, and everybody was so jealous. And they still are.
If I have any advice to anybody, it’s to just do it yourself, and don’t waste time trying to get a favor.
Junot Diaz, novelist
I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.
So what was the problem? Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs. That shit was too white.
Sometimes [people] say: You did an MFA. Did you ever think about dropping out? All the time.
Why didn’t you?
Another good question. I’m not sure I have a real answer. Answers yes but An Answer: no. Maybe it was immigrant shit. Maybe it was characterlogical—I was just a stubborn fuck. Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t want to move back to my mother’s basement for anything. Maybe I just got lucky—I didn’t snap or fall into a deep depression or get completely demoralized.
The promise of a life-changing learning experience is only as good as what you actually get and how that sizes up with what you need. It’s up to you to ask, ask, ask in advance: your teachers, your mentors, and other art students. Instead of getting into tense conversations with recruiters about financial aid once you’ve been admitted, find out before you apply if your school of choice is endowed with resources that allow it to provide adequate support.
Make sure to ask about hidden costs. You may be lured into paying for a lot more than your peers while getting a lot less. It’s up to you to find out what your money will buy.
Jerry Saltz, critic
I think it’s great for young artists to go to grad school if they’ve got the time, inclination, and money — whether it’s Mom and Dad’s money or a trust fund. Artists seem to thrive during these two years of enforced art-making, staying up very late and learning things with each other long after the professors have gone home for the night. But I’ve also witnessed — and may have been responsible for — a lot of bullshit. Iffy artist-teachers wield enormous artistic and intellectual influence over students, favors are doled out in power cliques.
All this may be the same as it ever was. What’s different now is that MFA programs are exorbitantly priced luxury items. At the top-shelf East Coast schools like Yale, RISD, SVA, and Columbia, the two-year cost can top $100,000. This doesn’t include room, board, materials, etc. Add all that in, and you’re hovering near a quarter-million dollars. No matter how wonderful the M.F.A. experience, that’s straight-up highway robbery.
I believe that many of the less-expensive, non-marquee schools now have parity with — and are sometimes better than — the sexy top tier. Trust me; I’ve taught at them all. And should be fired.
May 17, 2014
By Kunal Jasty
College tuition is rising faster than medical costs, inflation, and certainly the income of 99% of Americans. Four years at a private university now costs as much as a new Ferrari, and a student at a public university can expect to graduate $25,000 in debt. But does anyone know where colleges are spending all their money?
Academic Support – Academic administrators, academic deans, libraries.
Instruction – “General academic instruction, occupational and vocational instruction, community education, preparatory and adult basic education, and regular, special, and extension sessions.”
Research – Funding for research institutes, laboratories, and individual research.
Public Service – “Activities established primarily to provide noninstructional services beneficial to individuals and groups external to the institution. Examples are conferences, institutes, general advisory service, reference bureaus.”
Student Services – Admissions, registrars, student activities and organizations, student counseling.
Institutional Support – General administration and management, legal operations, fiscal operations, logistical expenses, public relations.
Operations and Maintenance – Utilities, insurance, maintaining campus buildings and grounds.
Depreciation – Losses in capital assets per year.
Scholarships and Fellowships – Grants, stipends, awards.
Auxiliary Enterprises Expenses – Residence halls, dining services, student health services, athletics, faculty housing.
Hospital Services – All expenses at a university affiliated hospital.
Independent Operations – Expenses “unrelated to the primary missions of the institution (i.e., instruction, research, public service) although they may contribute indirectly to the enhancement of these programs.”
Other expenses – “The amount of money (estimated by the financial aid office) needed by a student to cover expenses such as laundry, transportation, and entertainment.”
Net grant aid to students – The difference in the money a school receives in tuition, fees, room and board, and the amount of scholarships and fellowships it awards.
May 12, 2014
It just seems absurd, to pay 60 grand a year so that you can read Rousseau. I mean I can read Rousseau right here. Hell, I can hire sometime to read it to me, teach me French, and then read it to me in French for that kind of money. It’s absolutely nuts!
By Kunal Jasty
We’re drilling down on the essential question around the higher ed challenge – namely why does it cost so much, and it is it worth it in the end?
Here are 1500 American colleges and universities plotted by their 4-year sticker price on the x-axis and 30-year net return on investment (based on the median salary of graduates) on the y-axis. All data is taken from Payscale’s annual report on the earnings of college graduates. Look to the top right of the graph for high-price schools with high future salaries, the bottom right for high-priced schools with low future salaries, and the top left for (relatively) affordable schools with high future salaries.
- Payscale has a great explanation of their methodology on their website.
- The dataset is by no means perfect, but I believe it is accurate enough for illustrative purposes.
- We’re not taking into account the net price of colleges (i.e. financial aid and grant aid).
- Future earnings by no means the only way to judge a college or the “college experience.” It’s hard to put a price on the value of a college education, but I believe the average earnings of graduates is an extremely important data point.
- Thank you to nsonnad for providing invaluable code examples.
Podcast • May 8, 2014
Thomas Frank is the bestselling omni-critic who founded The Baffler magazine and edited it for years. He’s a columnist at Salon.com and he wrote the book on the turning of American politics ten years ago, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Shifting focus from politics to higher education, he did it again with “Academy Fight Song,” a Baffler piece published last winter. The question, his and ours: how did higher education, in general, turn from the days of the GI Bill — and the land grant colleges long before that — to being a trap for seventeen-year-old kids who are signing away their lives into eternity with student loans? College has turned into a trap, maybe, for all of us. Will it be the undoing of the great American middle class?
Podcast • April 21, 2011
Brown University literature professor Arnold Weinstein is recalling a half-century of reading and teaching books. He’s tracing the “Morning, Noon, and Night” — in the title of his new book — of his literary life. He begins, in this conversation, with two books that he read as a senior at Princeton: Melville’s Benito Cereno and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Benito Cereno is the story of a Spanish captain and his cargo of enslaved Africans who rebel and depose him. In Weinstein’s telling, it is a narrative of misunderstood power that resonates with America’s modern misadventures abroad. It is also, he says, the most cinematic writing of the 19th century. His long-held dream is to make it into a film.
It was in reading The Sound and the Fury that Weinstein began to understand the tussle between the “there and then” that dominates our inner lives and the “here and now” that constitutes our movement through public life.
I think each one of us lives exactly that ballet. We are always juggling what’s roiling inside of us versus the moves or steps in our public lives. Faulkner taught me that. … Once you see past the picturesqueness of Faulkner’s world, or the evils of both racism and sexism, … then you are confronting an extraordinarily rich picture of human maneuvering room: how you live with your inner ghosts, how you try to reach to the other. Books in that sense are profoundly ethical.
I think books are mirrors for readers. But they’re not mirrors in the lazy narcissist sense, that it’s kind of facile self-reflection. There’s labor in it. Call it a distorting mirror. It’s a picture of who you are, but it’s perhaps an elemental version of you that either you’ve never noticed, or never wanted to notice.
Arnold Weinstein with Chris Lydon in Providence, April 2011.
Professor Weinstein is sharing a profound faith in the essential nutrients of books, paired with a healthy dislike for the literary theory that has dominated the academy over the last four decades. We should read for emotion and experience, he reminds us, and remember that literature is not, as the theorists exhort, more “complex” than we realize, but rather richer and more resonant.
He’s learned, in years of leading celebrated courses on the tough masterpieces — his favorite is “Proust, Joyce and Faulkner” — that teaching literature is carrying out an injunction “that says we’re part of an ongoing life. They’re young, I’m three-score-and-ten, and these book are in many cases centuries old. There’s a kind of parallel between the blood-line in students, the blood-line in faculty and the blood-line in books. We’re there to keep these alive.”
Podcast • April 12, 2011
Thomas Balmès, the French film documentarian, had a worldwide hit last year with Babies. The movie was all pictures, no dialog. No text, no voice-over. No argument, no “cause.” Just irresistibly patient long shots of newborns and their parents in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and San Francisco, provoking wry comparisons and conversations (speak for yourselves) but mostly questions.
Is this the man to tune up — maybe redesign — the education of kids, and college kids, who already learn more from images and screens than they do from sentences and books? Thomas Balmès is saying that an education system that neglects to teach its students to participate in making the images they so readily consume is collapsing all around us, not least at Brown, where he was Artist-in-Residence last week. Academics (like his father, a Lacan scholar) write impenetrable texts for a closed circle of friends and rivals; students lean on screens, even in class, and learn by images without acknowledging their adopted language. The students who hovered with him all week arrive typically with ambitious and original film projects to save the world but very little idea, he said, of the how — or of craft, form and story-telling. Among the 10 “rules” that Thomas Balmes has adapted from the great Victor Kossakovsky, one suggests that while it would be nice to save the world, better perhaps for a filmmaker on a project to think of saving herself. It is part of academia’s duty, in Balmes’ view, to create at least a part of its product in today’s vernacular, a language defined overwhelmingly by images.
Today there was a survey published saying an average American child watches on average 7.5 hours of images per day — on phones, iPads, computers, TV. This is insane: to have so little concern about images in places like this to me is criminal. You need to participate in the making of these images, to be thinking about images and not learning how to communicate only through writing. It’s time that academics really taking this seriously. This is crucial. …
Students should participate in the creation of images, and not give it up to Murdoch, and others. You have people here in academia who are working in a kind of closed circle and not caring about what is going on outside. People do read, but writing cannot be the only mode of creation in the academic world. Academics must take and grasp, very rapidly, moving images, and participate in the production of these images… In France every child before 18 spends one year studying philosophy. You don’t become a philosopher, but you study. This is crucial. Reading images, understanding images, semantics, semiotics, whatever, is absolutely crucial and must be implemented at every age in the school system…
Thomas Balmès with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 8, 2011.