Will online learning spell the end of universities?by Kevin Charles Redmon / June 28, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Stanford University: students from Bakersfield to Bangalore can now take its computer science courses online
Primm, Nevada, is a three-casino, one-rollercoaster town in the Mojave Desert, just across the California state line and 40 minutes south of Las Vegas’s shimmering neon. Road-weary truckers can choose between Whiskey Pete’s, Terrible’s Lotto, and Starbucks. The centre of town is a discount fashion megamall.
In spring 2005, preparing for that autumn’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor of robotics, and David Stavens, his undergraduate protégé, arrived in the desert for several months of off-road testing. In tow was their Volkswagen Touareg, “Stanley,” a vehicle that can drive itself.
The Grand Challenge called on American university students to build robotic cars and race them, unassisted, across 131 miles of unforgiving desert scrub, over salt flats and down the treacherous Beer Bottle Pass. The contest was sponsored by the US department of defence, which hopes one day to send driverless vehicles into battle. Thrun and Stavens were counting on Stanley, more than a year in the making, to take home the $2m cash prize. But Stanley—its trunk packed with computers, sprouting radar and GPS antennae from its roof rack—needed a careful debugging.
“We happened to be in the car a lot, doing nothing else but waiting,” Thrun said recently. “Then something would go wrong and one of us would code like crazy. And during those times often there was really nothing to do, so we chatted a lot.”
Bouncing around the desert with their $150,000 toy, Stavens recalls, privilege was a frequent topic of conversation. “It would come up at night, in the hotel rooms of these very small towns we were staying in. ‘This has been a great system for us, higher education, but it’s kind of broken. What can we do?’”
After four months of teaching Stanley to steer clear of the tall cacti and sand pits, Thrun and Stavens had so far failed to solve academia’s privilege problem. Stanley performed like a champ though, and in October, the robo-car cruised to victory in Primm in just under seven hours, earning Stanford some serious geek accolades. They had updated the car, a technology of the 20th century, for the 21st.