Professors without borders

Will online learning spell the end of universities?
June 28, 2012
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.

In the years that followed, Thrun—something of a celebrity in the computer science world—accepted a fellowship at Google, where he co-developed Street View, which lets users click on a map of, say, the West End and take a virtual stroll through Leicester Square, and founded Google X, the company’s secret lab where futuristic technologies are incubated and born. As the lab’s director, Thrun developed “enhanced reality” glasses worthy of a dystopian sci-fi novel and built a second generation of robotic cars that have since logged thousands of miles on California roads.

Stavens continued to work in Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and, in 2011, received his doctorate. All the while, a 2007 PowerPoint presentation of ways radically to disrupt higher education languished on Thrun’s laptop.

He didn’t open the presentation again until seeing Salman Khan speak at TED, the international ideas festival, in 2011. Khan is an erstwhile hedge fund analyst who found his calling remaking education for the digital generation; his online Khan Academy offers 3,000 free video tutorials on everything from Cézanne to stoichiometry, many of them taught by Khan himself.

“I was actually sort of embarrassed, to be honest,” Thrun told me. “Thinking that I would teach 200 students at Stanford while a former investment banker was teaching 200,000.”

And so, in August 2011, Thrun, along with Stanford colleagues Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, made three of the university’s computer science courses available on the internet. Students taking the class via laptop, sitting in internet cafés in Budapest, Bangalore, and Bakersfield, would be given all the same lectures and exams as undergraduates sitting in Stanford’s lecture halls. They’d be graded just as mercilessly, too.

Hoping to drum up a little interest in his class, Thrun dashed off a short email to a handful of colleagues. When he woke up the next morning, 5,000 people had enrolled. “We scrambled,” Thrun said, during a talk this winter at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich. “We put together a small technology team. We built a really ugly website. And we started recording ourselves day and night. And just to show you how primitive our technology was, it was literally a camera, a pen, and a napkin.”

Lecturing to a camera was worlds apart from lecturing to an auditorium. Weaving together drawings, voiceovers and head shots was a perfectionist’s nightmare. A single class often took ten or 15 hours to record, “to the detriment of my marriage and my family life and my sleep.” Thrun asked Stavens to help design the course’s software, and the team began working, some without pay, out of Thrun’s tiny guesthouse in Los Altos Hills, five miles south of Stanford’s campus.

By the time classes began, enrolment had swelled to 158,000, with students from every country in the world except North Korea. Then, on campus, something bizarre happened. “On day one, we had this full class of 200 students. And just two or three weeks in, the class was empty. There were only 30 students showing up.” He asked around. “And they all said, they actually preferred me on video. They can rewind me on video.”

The internet programme also allowed students to be quizzed and marked automatically, on a scale never before possible. Twenty-three thousand students eventually “graduated” from Thrun’s computer science course. Just over one per cent of them got perfect scores. None of those were Stanford students.

At the end of his Digital Life Design talk in January, Thrun confirmed that he had resigned his tenure at Stanford. Instead, he was throwing his energy into a new venture, going live that day, called Udacity. The site would offer “massive online open courses” (MOOCs) free of charge to the global 99 per cent, to the tech-savvy and web-illiterate alike. With student debt at $1 trillion in the United States alone—greater than credit card debt—the current education system, with its barriers, privileges, and vast inequalities, was no longer defensible, he said.

“I always felt, I was at Stanford, the world’s best university, and I was a great teacher,” he said. “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again. It’s impossible. I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to the classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill. And I’ve seen wonderland.”

* * *

Not long ago, on a rainy Saturday morning, Professor Dave Evans and I hung out in bed while he tried to explain recursive functions (for the fourth time) and I worked on my homework. Or rather, I hung out in bed, and Evans, a computer science professor at the University of Virginia, hung out on my laptop screen, where I could—click—pause him midsentence and pour myself another cup of coffee.

“Computer Science 101: Building a Search Engine” was one of Udacity’s first offerings, and for seven weeks this spring, Evans was teaching me and 30,000 others to write enough Python—a basic programming language—to create a mini Google. We started with basics, including the difference between a computer and a toaster, and “bits” versus “bytes.” Then we went back in time for a little nerd history, from Augusta Ada King, Lord Byron’s daughter and the world’s first “programmer,” to PageRank, the search algorithm that powers Google.

Evans is the kind of nerdy savant whose gap-tooth smile and Monty Python humour attract a cult following on campus. (As an academic, he’s also a world-class cryptographer.) Thrun and Stavens found him in November 2011, flew him to Palo Alto in December, and by January he was crammed in a makeshift recording studio—still in Thrun’s guesthouse—rejigging his standard university curriculum into a Udacity one.

Instead of three 50-minute lectures a week, Evans needed a series of five to ten-minute video clips, each tackling a different concept, such as variables, loops, and “hash tables.” Tests had to be converted to online modules, whose multiple-choice answers could be marked automatically. So, too, did the weekly homework assignments, many of which required students to write complex lines of computer code; “standard questions” would cover the fundamentals, while “gold-star problems” would allow top students to set themselves apart. For every hour of finished lectures, Evans estimates, he and an assistant taped five or six hours of raw footage, then trimmed and spliced the material into bite-size clips.

“Building a Search Engine” began in late February, and at first I had no trouble keeping up. I attended a decent American university, and I’d like to think my brain has a little zip left in it. Whatever I lack in intellect I probably make up for in obstinacy, and I was going to be the best damn programmer if it killed me.

Homework was due every Tuesday evening, and going into the third week, my personalised Progress tab informed me, I had a solid B+. Then I started to get lazy. I’d fool around on Facebook all weekend and wake up on Tuesday morning in a panic. I’d binge on lectures, skip through quizzes, and scramble to finish the assignments on time while the morons sitting behind me in Starbucks would not shut up. Couldn’t these people see that I was trying to learn?

I mentioned this to Evans when we spoke in April. “One way to keep more students in the class is to reduce the effort required and water things down more,” he said. “We didn’t want to do that.” Indeed, of the more than 100,000 students who first signed up for CS101, just 30,000 completed the first lesson, and even fewer, 10,000, hacked their way through the final exam. A 90 per cent drop-out rate doesn’t look great on paper, but then, Udacity’s only admission requirement is an email address.

Evans was sympathetic. “Just keeping up with the course requires a tremendous amount of effort. Lots of people are excited by the idea and happy to provide their email address, but once it comes time to actually spend ten hours a week to keep up with the course, it’s pretty hard for people with real jobs and families and commitments and other things to do.”

So who is Udacity for, exactly? Basement-dwelling teenagers and unemployed bachelors? I logged on to the discussion forum to find out. There, I met Azzam, from Saudi Arabia; Paveoliu, from Romania; Kerbaï, from Cameroon; Hafiz, from Pakistan; and Svyatoslav, from Moscow, who invited any Russian speakers to join his study group.

“It turns out that two-thirds of our students are from outside the United States,” Stavens, now the CEO of Udacity, said. “It’s about a third US, a third from ten other countries you might expect—western Europe, Brazil, east Asia, Canada—and then about a third from 185 other countries. We have 500 students in Latvia. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it actually means more students take our classes in Latvia than take them on Stanford’s campus.”

And that’s just it: Stavens and his co-founders aren’t evangelists out to convert the unwashed masses. They simply minister to those who show up, looking to be saved. “Learning is a process a lot like exercise. It has great results, but takes a lot of effort. And maintaining that effort is really hard.” If you don’t want to learn Python, or how the smartphone game Angry Birds works, fine. There are 500 Latvians who do.

Not that you have to go so far as Riga. My CS101 classmates included system analysts from Albany, stay-at-home mums from Utah, and 17 year olds waiting to get the hell out of Oregon. “I’m a research nurse from Oklahoma City,” posted Jodie. “I wanted to go to Stanford when I graduated high school, but stuff happened and that didn’t work out. Forty years later, here I am.”

By the time the final exam for “Building a Search Engine” approached, I’d fallen a full week behind. I begged off dinner dates with friends and locked myself in my bedroom, trying to catch up. Anxieties and neuroses I hadn’t heard from since university dropped by to say hi. Before long, my fingernails were gone and tiny eyebrow hairs littered my keyboard.

The exam consisted of eight regular questions and three gold-starred ones. I made quick work of the first nine, but the tenth required a program to morph a misspelled word—say, “Prspoect”—into its correct form, “Prospect.” (This is the same magic underlying Google’s obliging “Did you mean… ?” function.) The Friday before it was due, I spent seven hours in a café armchair, trying to “hack,” or write, a solution, downing mug after mug of sour coffee. Slowly, my left brain began to unravel. By supper time, I was ready to hurl my laptop out the window in frustration. I had 60 lines of sloppy code and a program that worked only sporadically. Finally, on Sunday night, I capitulated and hit Submit.

While I waited for the Udacity-bots to grade my answers, I emailed the gold-star question to my younger brother, Joe, who majored in computer science and is, as they say in the corner of the country where we went to university, “wicked smaht.” He spent six minutes hacking the problem and sent back 13 lines of code. “It’s actually a really beautiful solution, too,” he wrote.

But then, Joe’s degree cost $200,000, plus library fines. For $2.73, plus tax, I can haunt the neighbourhood coffee shop and stream all the Udacity lectures I want.

* * *

This is a MOOC moment in Silicon Valley. While Thrun decided to break with Stanford in launching Udacity—“I really wanted to go radical,” he says—his colleagues Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng opted to partner with the university to develop their own site, Coursera. Like Udacity, its first offerings are computer science courses—on “Compilers” and “Automata”—in part because that’s what Koller and Ng know how to teach. Unlike Udacity, though, Coursera is sourcing lectures from a consortium of Ivy League schools, including Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. June’s catalogue includes introductions to sociology, pharmacology, and behavioural neurology. Poetry is slated for September, as is Greek and Roman mythology. And lest they be seen as late adopters, Harvard and MIT recently announced their own e-university, edX, endowing it with $60m in seed funding.

Universities were once wary of giving away their courses online. At best, the videos took up server space and ate into a professor’s office hours; at worst, they diluted the Ivy League brand. Today, the calculus has changed. Enterprising academics are anxious to show off their research or take the stage in front of 10,000 students. Administrators, in turn, recognise that embracing the web doesn’t mar a university’s stature—instead, it shows visionary leadership, which translates into better fundraising. And honestly, when Harvard decides to play spades, what choice do you have but to follow suit?

In the United Kingdom, MOOCs have been somewhat less fêted. (One computer scientist, at York, told me he hadn’t the faintest idea what I was talking about.) Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of Leeds, said, “We’ve had lots of conversations about, should we do this as a public good?” The technology is relatively cheap, after all, and the curricula already exist. “So why am I slightly reticent? I suppose because, although I think you can do a lot online, I don’t think you can do the full experience.” Then, the rock-and-roller in him came out. “I’m a Rolling Stones fan,” he said. “You can download lots of Rolling Stones online. But there’s nothing quite like going to the concert.”

Educators of a certain age will remember Fathom, Columbia University’s for-profit online learning portal that counted the London School of Economics, Cambridge University Press, and the British Museum among its partners. After burning through $25m and enrolling just 65,000 students in three years, the venture went belly-up in 2003.

Open University, of course, has been massively successful at offering paid online instruction. How it may fare against a competitor like Udacity, which gives away courses for free, remains to be seen. “No one’s 100 per cent sure what’s going to happen to them in the new world,” said Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie, in Australia, who often blogs about the marriage of education and technology. “I don’t think they know either.” With no entry requirements, MOOCs are targeting many of the same students that Open University has served for decades. “It’s the ultimate in equity, isn’t it? Everybody gets a chance. You’re not guaranteed success, but you’re guaranteed a chance.”

For traditional universities, Schwartz mused, MOOCs may be a clever new way to recruit non-traditional students. Schwartz was calling me from London where, just days before, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, had spoken about social mobility and educational opportunity. (“We can’t ignore it,” he said in a talk to the Sutton Trust. “Class still matters.”) One way to reach more disadvantaged students is to lower standards. But what if selective universities also allowed applicants—particularly those with poor secondary-school marks—to prove their smarts through MOOCs? “Let’s say you do a course [online] and you do well in it,” Schwartz offered. “We might say, ‘Well that’s proof enough, in you go!’”

For now, though, the Oxfords and Cambridges of the world are only wading in the surf. Moral imperatives aside, the simple fact is that American-style lectures lend themselves to web videos; Oxbridge-style tutorials do not. David White, co-manager of Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning at Oxford, pointed out that “the physical university has spent 1,000 years refining itself to create a kind of perfect ecology for students to interact—college dinners, the quad, the clubs and societies, the pubs, all of the rest of it.” Whatever Udacity’s virtues, pubs are not among them. Anomic learning may be fine for learning Python, but in the humanities, the discussion is the course. The intimacy of the tutor-student relationship at Oxford is the raison d’être of the university. “That’s kind of what we’re all about,” White said. “There’s a tension between that and the M of MOOC”—the “massive” part.

Talk of teaching Sophocles and Shakespeare to 100,000 students is sure to knit a few eyebrows and ruffle a few gowns. On Sand Hill Road, though, the centre of California’s venture-capital scene, it opens chequebooks. Udacity’s latest round of funding netted the company $5m; Coursera took in more than triple that. Which invites a fair question: are MOOCs just the latest vanity among techno-idealists? It’s hard not to wonder just how quickly the wellsprings of optimism and cash will run dry. Start-ups are notoriously coy about their profitability, and new web ventures often take years to break even, if indeed they ever do.

Solving the “double bottom line” dilemma—in which profits are as important as the public good—won’t be simple. Udacity hopes to use a “recruiter fee model,” earning a commission for every Latvian Mark Zuckerberg it discovers and connects with, say, Twitter or Amazon. There’s a voracious appetite for talent in the Valley these days, and Udacity has an enormous pool to fish from. A traditional recruiter often receives 20 per cent of a programmer’s first year salary, but Udacity could ask for half that and still make enough money to keep its investors happy. Meanwhile, the content, including lectures, quizzes and certificates, remains free.

Skimming recruiter fees is only one way of bringing in cash. Anant Agarwal, president of edX, has said that his site will charge for an official “certificate” of completion: anyone can take a course, but if you want your accomplishment in writing, you’ll have to pay. Alternatively, Coursera might be able to license its Ivy League content to smaller second-tier schools or state universities.

“Massive online courses provide disruptive competition to the status quo,” Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Centre on Education Policy at Brookings, said. “Would you rather listen to a lecture about Shakespeare from not only the world’s best Shakespeare scholar but one of the world’s best teachers and do it online, or, you know, listen to the third-rate person that’s provided by your community college?”

For now, Udacity and Coursera can buy time with venture capital dollars, and edX with funds from its parent universities. None are profitable, and investors don’t expect them to be—yet. But the technology costs will quickly add up. If Thrun wants to remake education, he’ll have to first make enough money to pay his employees. And if that proves impossible? He’ll either have to strike a Faustian bargain and begin charging students, fund Udacity out of his own pocket, or kill the very thing he’s created.

Thrun allows that there are obstacles, financial and otherwise. “For example, I won’t be able to teach you how to play tennis anytime soon. Physical exercise, playing a musical instrument—that’s going to be harder. Poetry is probably harder than history. History is fact-based, while poetry is more subjective.” Then again, this is a man who taught his car to drive itself down the Pacific Coast Highway. How hard can it be to set up a worldwide network of crackerjack teaching assistants who will volunteer to mark essays about Richard III and the French Revolution?

We’ll know soon enough, as Coursera will have to solve the riddle this autumn when its first humanities classes go online. Ng imagines a “peer grading” scheme in which qualified students mark one another’s work; the task could be distributed widely, so that no one assistant determines any given grade. And in time, who knows? Natural language processing, a computer’s ability to parse written English, may get so good that a machine can catch dangling participles, limp prose, even stale ideas.

“Online education right now is where air travel was a hundred years ago,” says Stavens. “No one has built the Concorde yet.”

On 6th April, I graduated from Udacity’s CS101 “with high distinction” and received a PDF diploma with my name and a nifty little robot on it. When the second term began a week later, I could have taken my newfound Python skills and enrolled in a course like “Design of Computer Programs” or “Web Application Engineering.” Instead, I wandered over to Codecademy, a New York-based start-up that offers MOOCs on how to write languages used to build web sites. But for all my enthusiasm, it was a lesson in the limits of online learning.

Codecademy aims to make learning JavaScript as easy as possible, teaching it like a foreign language, with grammar and syntax. When it launched in late 2011, technophiles and the Twitterati went bonkers. Coding for kindergarteners! Even New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intention to enrol. By early January, more than a million people had signed up.

I wanted to like my new JavaScript classes, I really did. They were intuitive and fast-paced, and pretty soon I’d collected 369 “points” and six “achievements,” whatever those were. But after spending seven weeks building a search engine with Udacity’s Dave Evans, Codecademy felt a little cold. There were no video lectures, no corny jokes, no virtual field trips to particle accelerators, and—most problematic of all—no deadlines. Where Udacity motivated students by stoking long-repressed grade school anxieties—turn this in by Tuesday night or get a big fat zero—Codecademy relied on intermittent positive reinforcement: “You will feel like a boss when you make your first app and webpage!” their weekly emails reminded me.

After a while, I started flagging the emails as spam.

* * *

No one claims that MOOCs will take a wrecking ball to the ivory tower—Stanford accepts only 7 per cent of those who apply, and there’s no shortage of families willing to pay the $53,298 annual sticker price—but it wouldn’t hurt to shake it up a little. As Thrun observed in his Digital Life Design talk, the world’s first university appeared in Bologna in 1088. “At the time, 350 years before Gutenberg, the lecture was the most effective way to convey information.” Then came the printing press, industrialisation, celluloid, the web. “And miraculously, professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago! The university has been, surprisingly, the least innovative of all places in society.”

Thrun seems willing to court failure, however costly, if it means the chance to disrupt a sclerotic system in a spectacular way. He wants a university built of 1s and 0s where the world-class roboticist in Palo Alto can teach the pensioner in Leeds and the nurse in Caracas and the lawyer in Beirut and the pencil pusher in Mumbai and the kids hanging around the drive-thru window at the Carl’s Jr in Primm, just across the California state line, 40 minutes south of Vegas, and about a million miles from anywhere.