Monday, January 23, 2012

Making universities obsolete

Sebastian Thrun recently announced that he was leaving Stanford to found a free, online university called Udacity. This is based on his experiences teaching the famous intro to AI class, for free, to 160,000 students online.

Is this just Education for the Twitter Generation? Or truly a revolution in how we deliver higher education? Will this ultimately render universities obsolete?

I want to ponder the failings of the conventional higher education model for a minute and see where this leads us, and consider whether something like Udacity is really the solution.

Failure #1: Exclusivity.

In Sebatian's brilliant talk at DLD, he talks about being embarrassed that he was only able to teach a few tens of students at a time, and only to those who can afford $30,000 to attend Stanford. I estimate that I taught fewer than 500 students in total during my eight years on the faculty at Harvard. That's a pretty poor track record by any stretch.

It gets worse. I know plenty of faculty who love to give tough courses, in which they would teach really hard material at the beginning of the semester to "weed out" the weaker students, sometimes being left with only 2 or 3 really committed and really good students in the class. This is so much more satisfying as a professor, since you don't need to worry about tutoring the weaker students, and the fewer students you have, the less work you have to do grading and so on. There is no penalty for doing this - and rarely any incentive given for teaching a larger, more popular course.

Exclusivity is necessary when you only have so much classroom space, or so many dorms, or so many dining halls, so you have to be selective about who enters the hallowed gates of the university. It's also a way of maintaining a brand: even schools, like Harvard, with a "distance education" component go to great lengths to differentiate the "true" Harvard education from a "distance learning certificate," lest they raise the ire of the Old Boys' Network by watering down what it means to get a Harvard degree (not unlike the reaction they got when they started admitting women, way way back in 1977).

Failure #2: Grades.

Can someone remind me why we still have grades? I like what Sebastian says (quoting Salman Khan) about learning to ride a bicycle: It's not as if you get a D learning to ride a bike, then you stop and move onto learning the unicycle. Shouldn't the goal of every course be to get every student to the point of making an A+?

Apparently not. The common argument is that we need grades in order to differentiate the "good" from the "bad" students. Presumably the idea is that if you can't get through a course in the 12-to-13 week semester then you deserve to fail, regardless of whatever is going on in your life and whether you could have learned everything over a longer time span, or with more help, or whatever. And the really smart students, the ones who nail it the first time, and make A's in every class, need to float to the top so they get the first dibs on good jobs or law school or medical school or whatever rewards they have been working all of their young lives to achieve. It would not be fair if everyone made an A+ -- how would the privileged and smart kids gain any advantage over the less privileged, less intelligent kids?

It seems to me that this is completely at odds with the idea of education.

Failure #3: Lectures.

As Sebastian says, universities have been using the lecture format for more than a thousand years. I used to tell students that they were required to come to my lectures, and never provided my lectures by video, lest the students skipped class and watched it on YouTube from their dorms instead. Mostly this was to ensure that everybody in the class got the benefit of my dynamic and entertaining lecture style, which I worked so hard to perfect over the years (complete with a choreographed interpretive dance demonstrating the movement of the disk heads during a Log-Structured Filesystem cleaning operation.) But mostly it was to boost my ego and get some gratification for working so hard on the lectures, by having the students physically there in class as an audience.


I'm not sure whether Udacity and Khan Academy and iTunes University are really the solution to these problems. Clearly they are not a replacement for the conventional university experience -- you can't go to a frat party, or join a Finals Club, or make out in the library stacks while getting your degree from Online U. (At least not yet.)

But I think there are two important things that online universities bring to the table: (1) Broadening access to higher education, and (2) Leveraging technology to explore new approaches to learning.

The real question is whether broadening access ends up reinforcing the educational caste system: if you're not smart or rich enough to go to a "real university," you become one of those poor, second-class students with a certificate Online U. Would employers or graduate schools ever consider such a certificate, where everyone makes an A+, equivalent to an artium baccalaureus from the Ivy League school of your choice?

If not, is that because we truly believe that students are getting a better education sitting in a dusty classroom and having paid the proverbial $30,000 a year rather than doing the work online? This reminds me of my friends who have been through medical school, where the conventional wisdom is that doctors need to be trained using the classical methods (unbelievable amounts of rote memorization, soul-destroying clinical rotations and countless overnight shifts) because that's how it's been done for hundreds of years -- not because anybody thinks it yields better-trained doctors.

And I think universities have a long way to go towards embracing new technologies and new ways of teaching students. Sebastian makes a great point about the online AI class feeling more "intimate" to some students, in part because it really is a feeling of a one-on-one experience watching a video: you're not sitting in a big lecture hall surrounded by a bunch of other students, you're at home, in your PJs, drinking a beer and watching the video on your own laptop. A lot of this also has to do with Sebastian's teaching style, using a series of short quizzes that are auto-graded by the system. It is not just a lecture. For this reason I think that replacing live courses with videotaped lectures is not going far enough (and may in fact be detrimental).

Another benefit of the video delivery model is that you can replay it infinitely many times. Missed a point? Confused? Rewind and watch it again. What about questions? In large courses almost nobody asks questions, apart from the really smart students who should shut the hell up and not ask questions anyway. There are plenty of ways to deal with questions in an online course format, just not live, during a (limited time) lecture in which your question is likely going to annoy the rest of the class who almost certainly gets it already.


I'm going to close this little rant with a few caveats. It's fashionable to talk about "University 2.0" and How the Internet Changes Everything and disruptive technologies and all that. But a shallow, 18-minute video on the first 200 years of American History can't replace conventional coursework, deep reading, and essays. You can't tweet your way through college. Learning and teaching are hard work, and need to be taken seriously by both the student and educator.

Although expanding access to education is a great thing, it's simply not the case that everyone is smart enough to do well in any subject. For example, I'm terrible at math (which is why I'm a systems person, natch), and damn near failed to complete my CS theory course requirement at Berkeley as a result. Education should give everyone the opportunity to succeed, but the ultimate responsibility (and raw ability) comes down to the student.

Finally, it goes without saying that the most important experiences I ever had in college were outside of the classroom. I'm not just talking about staying up late and watching "Wayne's World" for the millionth time while drinking Zima, I'm talking about doing research, building things, learning from and being inspired by my fellow students. Making lectures obsolete is one thing; but I'm not sure there can ever be an online replacement for The College Experience writ large. Though 4Chan seems to be a pretty close approximation.

Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.