by Brian Caulfield

Sebastian Thrun is known for some wild ideas, but this might be his wildest. The Stanford research professor behind Google’s driverless car project and its Google X Lab wants to turn teachers into rock stars. It can happen. Thrun experienced it first hand after he put an artificial intelligence course he co-taught at Stanford online. 160,000 students participated in the online class, with 23,000 finishing the course.

Sebastian Thrun of Google.
Sebastian Thrun at NVIDIA’s nTECH conference.

“When I go to a random city it now only takes an hour for someone to come up to me and say ‘I know you,’ because of my online class,’” said Thrun, before kicking off a conversation about the future of education with our CEO Jen-Hsun Huang on Wednesday. “Why shouldn’t there be rock star teachers?” Thrun spoke with Jen-Hsun at our first annual nTECH internal engineering conference. The two-day conference was held in our headquarters and broadcasted to employees around the globe. Best known for his work for leading a Stanford team that won the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005 and going on to lead Google’s driverless car effort, Thrun, 45, is a research professor at Stanford and a Google Fellow, where he helped start the search company’s Google X Lab. The once-secretive lab first gained widespread notice in April when it unveiled Project Glass, which puts augmented reality technology into a compact head-mounted display — and Thrun spoke while wearing the project’s sleek, computer-enhanced eyewear. His latest project is Udacity, a startup he co-founded in January that aims to upend traditional notions of what it means to learn in a digital, connected era. He was inspired to experiment after watching a talk by Salman Khan, founder of a Khan Academy, which distributes more than 3,300 courses on topics ranging from cosmology to American civics on YouTube. “If you think about the resources on this planet there is water, there is energy, there is clean air,” Thrun said. “I think the most important resource is its people, the human capital, and we are neglecting that resource.”

Blown away

So Thrun put the artificial intelligence course he taught at Stanford online. He posted his plans on a Friday afternoon. By Monday, he had signed up more than 14,000 students. “The thing that completely blew my mind was the response that we got,” Thrun said. “We had more students in Lithuania than Stanford has students,” Thrun said. That success led Thrun to launch Udacity, one of a number of high-profile projects that are challenging traditional ideas about education. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is tweaking the educational establishment with a fellowship program that encourages roughly 20 students every year to drop out of school and pursue entrepreneurial interests. The Minerva Project, led by Ben Nelson, has raised $25 million from Benchmark Capital to build “the first elite American University to be launched in a century.” Thrun’s plan, by contrast, is to make sophisticated, interactive content widely accessible – there are courses on artificial intelligence and applied cryptography. And it can also make the best teachers accessible to more students. “You’re passionate about this field and it’s great to listen to someone who loves teaching,” Huang told Thrun. There’s even a course on building search engines that brought in Google co-founder Sergey Brin for a guest lecture, Thrun told Jen-Hsun. There are no grades or classrooms, and courses are free – although students may pay for exams to certify their skills. And putting more content online makes the performance of students – and teachers – track-able in ways that weren’t possible before. “I would love to make learning a data-driven science rather than a collection of medieval rules of thumb,” Thrun said.

More than one size fits all

To be sure, Thrun doesn’t see the traditional university experience going away. However it’s one that’s not going to work for everybody who wants to learn. Thrun has gotten feedback from students who have taken courses from war zones in Afghanistan, and seen students who are under age 10 doing graduate level work. “But at nine or 10, they just won’t fit into the system,” Thrun said. Middle-aged learners are often locked out of the traditional university experience, too. There’s a slice carved out for that in early life – but once you have kids and a mortgage …” Thrun said. That doesn’t mean great teachers, and the great schools that employ them, don’t have a future, however. “The great universities around the world will become even greater, because their reach around the world will be larger,” Jen-Hsun said.