Sebastian Thrun: Learn. Think. Do. That’s the Udacity experiment.

“Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” tweet

(Herbert A Simon; referenced in “How Learning Works” by Susan Ambrose et al). tweet

What a great quote!

Herb was my friend and mentor at Carnegie Mellon University. And he was perhaps Carnegie Mellon’s most dedicated teacher. As a Nobel laureate in economics and a Turing Award winner, Herb made a point to teach the freshman language class. I recall being in an auditorium filled with 800 students with Herb waving dictionaries at us: a big comprehensive one and a small one.  Which one, he quizzed us, should you take with you when travelling?  After an uncomfortably long pause with students guessing – after all this was just a yes/no question – he triumphantly proclaimed, it’s the small one. Because it fits in your pocket.

Herb’s quote above summarizes all there is to know about Udacity. At Udacity, learning results from what the student does and thinks. The instructor at Udacity can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.

A Udacity class is different from most other online classes. It is not centered on the professor. It is not about performance, lectures, monologue. It’s not about listening. It is all about student thinking and student problem solving.

The key element of a Udacity class is the student exercise. Sometimes exercises are as mundane as a multiple choice quiz. Yet others require students to implement advanced scientific concepts in software. Exercises come in sequences curated to lead students onto a path. They start easy; they progress. The role of the teacher is to curate these exercises, to explain them, and to assist students when they get stuck. And exercises often come first, before presenting solutions. We challenge our students to think – not just to memorize and apply known solutions. So at Udacity the teacher is the student’s coach. In our system, students can easily advance to the next exercise when no more explanation is needed, or they can rewind the teacher as many times as they want. Our mission is to empower the student.

Udacity is not about assessment. It’s not about grades. It’s about mastery. This is an important difference. In most of higher education, the pacing of a class is fixed (as Sal Khan points out), and if students fail to acquire a skill in a certain time, they just get a bad grade. Udacity classes allow students to progress at their own pace. Students can take exams as often as they wish. It’s not the failures that matter, it’s the successes. When a student finally solves all problems, mastery has been achieved. This is what we are after. We don’t certify failure to reach mastery in a given time window. We certify success!

Udacity classes are also about intuition. I believe everything in math and sciences can be made more intuitive. I believe intuition beats formalisms when it comes to understanding concepts and applying them to real-life problems. In my own classes – from Introduction to Statistics to Advanced AI – I take pride in building intuition through exercises and simple explanations.

Hands down the most important aspect of Udacity is the following. At Udacity, we don’t know. When Peter and I launched AI class back in 2011, I had no clue whether teaching large number of students online made any sense; I only had an inkling. And we didn’t know how to teach online. In the past year, we have made a lot of progress. But we still don’t have all the answers. The Udacity team are learners, too.

This is why I view Udacity as one big experiment. Every class is an experiment. Sometimes we mix basic with advanced material. Sometimes we optimize the visual production quality of the material. We run countless experiments. And we carefully analyze the data. Data comes in the form of collective statistics (e.g., quiz results). And it comes in the form of individual testimonies.  We eagerly want to transform teaching into a data-driven science. At Udacity, we can look at every aspect of student problem solving and engagement, and meticulously improve our courses based on all this. We aspire to “discover” what works online from data.

Creating Udacity has been the single most amazing thing in my life. I care passionately about education. I believe education is the core of modern society, and access to high-quality education must be a basic human right.  It is a privilege to have the trust and dedication of so many students and educators. If Udacity succeeds, it will change humanity. We aspire to bring meaningful and effective education to everyone in the world.



15 thoughts on “Sebastian Thrun: Learn. Think. Do. That’s the Udacity experiment.

    • I am so sure of what I have learned with Udacity. For me Udacity is my source of knowledge and adventure, fun and development. Thank you very much for this post. It is really comforting to know that we have the hope, the vibe, and the focus in the same pivotal clef. The honesty, fairness, and top quality of Udacity has no rival. I have been looking around, comparing and benchmarking. Udacity is

    • Professor Thurn, You are doing a great job with these courses. I currently finished cs101 and now I'm in the lean launchpad course. I am enjoying every minute of it. This is really changing education in a big way. I am telling all my friends and family about this website. Thank you and good job.

  1. I have found Udacity to be on a much better track that the other online learning options (and I'm trying several), with the exception of Khan Academy, although that has a different focus/package as now.As Dr. Thrun points out above, teaching should be about "understanding," not about grades, tests, lectures, etc. All those things are means to promote learning and

    • Yes! Too many times in my own University courses do we discuss the formal definition before the actual intuition behind an equation or theorem. I've noticed it makes less sense when something is explained in such a way, and I've begun to ask for the idea that leads to a conclusion when I notice a professor leading into a new concept.

  2. I've taken a few courses with Prof.Thrun (AI, Self-Driving Car, and Intro Stats) and each one has been a pleasure to take. I even learned from the Intro Stats course, despite already being familiar with much of the material.

  3. I think that Udacity is on right way. Some online courses just demands classic way on video. This is great also, but for some classes it is counterproductive. Udacity aims a different way, more dynamic and divided in right chunks for assimilation of his contents.I have taken CS373 and CS101 and now ST101. I tried CS262, but I quit. I felt that the manner the teacher works the subjects

  4. What a great post, I find Udacity mesmerizing. Where traditional education fails is where Udacity shines. No academic ego, no factory-style treatment of students, just the ever satisfying experience of learning and teaching going both ways, from teachers to students and from students to teachers, win-win for both parties, as it should be. Hopefully in the near future the Udacity way will

  5. Sites like coursera may have more content, but the teaching styles I have encountered throughout the Udacity courses, are, generally, clearly much better. Your video lectures, and lecturers, are generally much less dry, and the content you have produced, although I do feel it could go into greater depth in certain key areas, is quite often much more informative than any of the content

  6. Sebastian, thank you so much for your initiative and commitment with Udacity. This is an overwhelming contribution for those, who cannot afford (time and money) to get the best possible education. I am total beginner in programming (45 years of age) and did so far c1 101 & 252. It is all very demanding for me, but you opened a new world and new opportunities to me. Just wanted to say thank

  7. I'd like to add my thanks to Sebastian Thrun and everyone at Udacity. I immensely appreciate the innovation and effort put into the online learning experience that Udacity offers, and genuinely believe this is the future of higher education.Good luck, Udacity, and Thank You.

  8. I love you all! Thank you so much for this. My school has the crappiest imaginable CS program. These courses will save me from dire incompetence at my own pace.

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