Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun speaks about the future of education in the networked world and explains why learning in specified classrooms will soon be a thing of the past.
Professor Thrun, with Udacity you recently launched a new platform for interactive online courses. What is the vision behind it?
Sebastian Thrun: We want to provide higher education that is in line with the needs of the 21st century and make it accessible to everyone. Today's education system is based on medieval structures and has not significantly changed since the 19th century. In times gone by there was a period of your life where you learnt the tools of the trade for your future career. You then usually stayed in the same profession for your whole working life as your training had prepared you well enough for the expected technical developments.
Today, almost everything we learn is rendered irrelevant within ten years. This is not only true of IT but for almost every discipline – from medicine, through law, to engineering. Education and learning are therefore life-long pursuits that should be accessible to everyone and flexible in order to adapt to each individual situation. We have to be able to learn in small portions or units of time which we schedule ourselves; a weekend now and then or sometimes a whole week. Up until now, we have interpreted the word "learning" as a personal experience during which the teacher and the students interact in the same place, at the same time. That's all well and good but it does have its drawbacks.
What do you think is lacking in the traditional education system?
One teacher per student is unaffordable so a teacher has to take care of 20, or sometimes even 100, students. They are therefore all forced to work at the same pace, which contradicts the actual idea of learning. Every person has their own needs and ways of understanding new material. Those who learn online can study at their own pace. The core aim of Udacity is to customise education. We base our concept on the principles behind video games. They are challenging and reward players when they have acquired a new skill. And they are so much fun that they become addictive. Learning should also be addictive.
Will the school of tomorrow be like a computer game?
Elements of games will play an important role – this process is called "gamification" in the IT world. Let's take assessment as an example. In the conventional education system, students dread tests and grades. They have to be taken at the university at a particular time; you only have one attempt otherwise you may have to repeat the entire course. And you wait in trepidation for two weeks for the results. With a video game, you are continually assessed. You can take as much time as you want, have as many attempts as you want and get instant feedback.
If the old-style classroom is not suitable for this faster and more flexible type of education or further education, will we soon all be studying online?
There will be a mixture of offline and online programmes. A professor reading the same lecture from his/her notes year in, year out is a complete waste of time. In no way does online education mean that everything will turn into a computer game. However I do believe that 80 percent of all university learning activities can be transferred to the internet without any problems and that they would actually benefit from this.
We could then concentrate on improving the remaining 20 percent of learning activities. If a professor does not have to give any lectures any more because they are available online, he/she can devote his/her time to small groups, mentoring, discussions with individual students etc.
The first generation of MOOC platforms (editor's note: Massive Open Online Course), such as Udacity, are aimed at learners who do not pay for the courses or get certificates for them. When and how will established universities use your programmes?
They already do. For example, we work together with a local university that recognises participation in our online courses. And we are continually refining our concept. A computer system alone is not enough, therefore we have mentors and supervisors on site to help the students in the event of problems. The course fees are only a tenth of the usual costs and we can therefore pass these savings on to the students. This is fantastic when you consider that, in the USA at least, the average student graduates from university with $35,000 of debt. We are also working on a complete degree course, including final exams. We are offering our first Master's course together with Georgia Tech, one of the ten best universities worldwide for computer science.
Education via the internet is not exactly everyone's thing, as can be seen by the high drop-out rates. Do your programmes also suffer from too many students quitting?
There are a couple of reasons why so few people complete their MOOCs – only ten percent according to some statistics. You can register quickly and don't have to pay anything, so lots of participants sign up who would otherwise not have done so. The other problem is the lack of quality of a lot of MOOC courses. They are nothing more than recorded lectures. If fees are charged for the courses the picture changes completely. The completion rates then shoot up to 80 percent and are about as high as conventional seminars.
Courses such as those on Udacity are available throughout the world but educational standards differ drastically from country to country. Will MOOCs level these standards out?
It would be great if we could level out the basic conditions for education and learning throughout the world so that absolutely everyone could make more of themselves without too much effort. Our user figures already show that we have made an impact in developing and emerging countries such as India. We currently have approximately 1.2 million registered students, of which a third come from North America, a third from Europe and a third from developing countries.
Do you see any downsides to the trend of digitising education and learning?
The MOOC landscape is still in its early days and gives us hope that we will be able to offer education and learning to the whole world. What I am unhappy about are the high drop-out rates. The people who are registering now are the highly motivated ones. If they don't complete their courses then lesser motivated students will never make it. But we have to accept that online education is still in its infancy.
We are at the same stage of development as the film industry in the 1920s when there were only silent films and you just aimed a camera at a stage. Let's assume that the technology will continue to advance rapidly and we will soon be doing most of our learning online.
What will happen to grades?
They will disappear. Grades are a poor resource used to herd people into artificial groups and to put them off subjects like mathematics. As soon as you start to drop behind, you get a bad grade and you fall even further behind. You're branded a loser and don't have any time to catch up again. Real learning is totally different. Everyone is good at certain things and finds other areas more difficult. Anyone can improve if they are just given enough time. This means that in the education system of tomorrow no one will fail but will just achieve the goals at different times. This is how things work in life. Some things happen quickly, others take longer. I have no idea why, but we put ourselves under unnecessary time pressure when it comes to education and learning – with serious consequences. I don't claim to have all the answers but we should be asking ourselves these important questions now, as the technology enables us to offer every student a tailor-made education programme.
Source: Audi magazin 03/2013
Text: Steffan Heuer
Photo: Max Whittaker / laif