Stanford IT professor's new venture offers free, online technology classes

Free online courses from leading IT educators promise to teach students how to build a search engine or program a robotic car within a matter of weeks.

One of the Stanford professors who conducted last semester's online artificial intelligence course has decided it's time to leave the confines of academia and form his own company offering free online technology courses.

Sebastian Thrun, who teamed up with Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, to deliver the AI course, announced that he was leaving his tenured position Stanford to found Udacity, a start-up offering free online classes. Thrun joined David Evans, a professor of computer science at the University of Virginia, in launching Udacity.

The first set of online courses will cover “Building a Search Engine” and “Programming a Robotic Car.” In the search engine course, Thrun and Evans promise to "teach you enough about computer science that you can build a web search engine like Google or Yahoo!" In the robotic car course, they states that withIn seven weeks, "you'll learn how to program all the major systems of a robotic car, by the leader of Google and Stanford's autonomous driving teams."

Thrun's recent experience with an online classroom environment -- now being offered and replicated by other professors at Stanford and MIT -- was a worldwide hit. The AI course drew more than 160,000 participants from across the globe. Thrun, says he is leaving the full-time employ of the university to help launch a new higher education site, dedicated to bringing online classes, for free, to hundreds of thousands of students from across the globe.

A report in The Chronicle of Higher Education documents Thrun’s reasoning in defecting to the disruptive side of higher education:

“[Thrun said] his move had been motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. During the era when universities were born, ‘the lecture was the most effective way to convey information. We had the industrialization, we had the invention of celluloid, of digital media, and, miraculously, professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,’ he said. He concluded by telling the crowd that he couldn’t continue teaching in a traditional setting. ‘Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,’ he said.”

Classes start on February 20th, and those successfully completing the classes will be awarded a certificate by the professors.

(Cross-posted at SmartPlanet Business Brains.)

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