Sebastian Thrun’s Big Idea

Today is the first-ever national Digital Learning Day, a good day to talk about computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor who is leaving a tenured position and will teach free online computer science classes to a global audience.

Thrun is a very popular professor at Stanford — the class he taught with Peter Norvig on Artificial Intelligence (AI) routinely drew 200 students. But when Thrun offered the course online and, with one email,  invited the world to enroll, that number jumped to 160,000 students.

The experience changed Thrun’s life, he said in a talk at the recent DLD – Digital Life Design conference in Munich. The course was exactly the same as the one he taught in the classroom on the Stanford campus, but the online students included working men and women of all ages from all across the globe.

As Thrun heard back from the online students about the impact the class was having on their lives — including a note from a soldier stationed in Afghanistan who watched online instruction while on a break from mortar fire — he decided that making education free and accessible could change the world, he said.

Thrun and two partners founded Udacity, which is planning to offer more courses, including a programming course with no prerequisites.

What does all this have to do with the meetings industry? Because Thrun is one of the world’s premier scientists, we can expect to see him thinking deeply about the content and delivery of online education.

The first class has already yielded teaching lessons. Students told him that the online classes felt personal, despite the fact they were broadcast to thousands. They felt intimate, Thrun said, because he kept the technology simple, using a camera, a pen, and paper to illustrate course content. Thrun also up-ended the passive lecture model, finding ways to make the course material interactive, so that students were actively engaged.

Udacity is looking to add more instructors from top-tier universities — in law, business, medicine, and other disciplines. No doubt those individuals will bring their own ideas about online education to the enterprise.

Udacity and its audacious goals were announced just a few days ago. But it does look like the start of something big.

Thanks to Dara at for posting the video.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.