When you’ve been one of the leading minds behind getting cars to drive themselves, you tend to shoot for the moon. Sebastian Thrun certainly is with Udacity, his education start-up which currently offers nanodegrees in things like Data Analyst and Android Developer. Not exactly a Stanford or Harvard or even community college curriculum, but Thrun believes he’s just at the beginning of reimagining higher ed. From a Smithsonian Q&A Roger Catlin conducted with the Google X lab founder:
What is your dream for Udacity?
If I could double the world’s GDP, it would be very gratifying to me, measuring it not by the company itself but by the impact it would have. We are launching an education system that Google has undersigned, a joint education for entrepreneurship. It’s a niche to some extent, but if you bring this to the Middle East, if you bring this to Africa, if you bring this to Bangladesh, to developing countries, to China and India, I think it can have a huge impact on their ability to participate constructively in the creation of wealth and prosperity. Specifically the Middle East, at this point, suffers from the fact there is no path for young people to participate constructively, so some of those, as a result, may choose other paths, like terrorism.
What are the greatest obstacles of reaching that goal?
Eventually, it will take broadening the course catalog. We work with computer science and software stuff, but not everyone wants to be a software engineer.
Where should I start? Obviously we are iterating the student experience, and in some courses we managed to get the finishing rate from about 2 percent to over 90 percent. And that was really hard work to make it really good. So think about it as a car that in the beginning drives about 10 mph, but with relentless engineering you get it to about 100 mph. That’s the product quality. The quality of the experience. The second one, honestly, is that education is such a slow growing field, so there is a trust element. Like, do you trust a new player? And to some extent education is owned by the degree-granting universities that have an efficient delivery model. So to gain the trust of our students means we’ll be placing them in jobs, showing the job records, to show how the teaching really empowers them. That will bring new students, but that’s going to take some time.•