Thursday, November 29, 2012

Broadening Access to Higher Education: A Story From a Texas Charter School Pilot

Today, we wanted to share a story that is very close to us.  Stories like these remind us why Udacity began, why our team works hard every day, and encourages us that our mission to broaden access to education is, at least anecdotally, having some success.  It embodies why we exist and what we strive to do -- reach and engage students in college level courses who would otherwise be left out, bored, disenfranchised, and not empowered to further their education.

Earlier this year, we received an email from the founder of Winfree Academy Charter Schools. The subject matter: Damsel in Distress.  In the email, Melody Chalkley introduced her school and her mission. Winfree Academy Charter Schools are located in Texas and serve “at risk” students.  In fact, 91% of their students are at-risk of dropping out of high school as defined by the Texas Education Code. Almost a third of their students are 18 and older, many are young/single parents, many were previously enrolled in an Alternative Education Program, and 17% are homeless... yet 81% of their seniors want to continue their education at the post-secondary level.

Melody wrote about the need to re-engage these students and prepare them on their road to college readiness with curriculum in which they could really learn at their own pace, learn by doing such that they are fully engaged, and could begin to be empowered again in their education.  We decided to do a pilot.

For the pilot, 22 students ended up enrolling in Udacity courses. All of them had indicators as being at-risk for dropping out of school by state and national standards and 78% were from economically disadvantaged households.  They had the choice to enroll in either Introduction to Statistics or Introduction to Physics.  We ultimately had 17 students enrolled in Physics and 5 enrolled in Statistics.  At 9 weeks into the pilot, 72% of students were trending above expectations set by their principal. In fact, 7 students had completed the physics course and 100% of the students in the statistics course were ahead of the principal’s expectations in their progress.  

We were especially inspired to hear the stories about two of the girls:. J.C., a 17 year-old Hispanic/American Indian, and K.H., a 17 year-old Caucasian, both of whom had been “at-risk” since grade 7 and at their prior, traditional schools had not maintained enough of an average to keep them in school. Both of these girls were able to complete our online physics class at higher than 80%.

While there were also some constraints, added self-discipline, and some more features that came up for us to work on, as Melody shared the students feedback, we were encouraged by the students’ reviews:

“You get the one on one attention that you want. [The teacher] teaches you how to do the problems step by step and then lets you do it on your own. Another great thing about this is that if you do not understand it you can always keep repeating it until you figure out how to work it out.”

“I was more likely to retain the information because they learned it, then did it.”

“Teachers are online ready to explain and help you understand what you’re stuck on. ...They explain almost everything in detail without a problem making easier for those of us who are tactile learners.”

We want to congratulate the students that completed the pilot program!  We take their feedback to heart as both encouragement and areas we will continue to build on.  And thank you to the Winfree teachers and administrators for all the work they do to help these at risk students meet their goals of going to college and taking college level courses.  Stay Udacious!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Original, Free Online AI Class, now on Udacity!

In the summer of 2011, I saw an announcement about an online course called AI-class. It was taught by two well known experts in the field and seemed like an opportunity that should not be missed. I was lucky to participate in the original class, and it had a great impact on me in many ways. But after the course ended, and especially since I started to work at Udacity, I have talked to a lot of people who missed this opportunity. I was really looking forward to open it up in our new platform. But before I get ahead of myself, some history.

* * *

This is the story about the beginnings of AI-class - the class that made MOOC history. It was the first online class to graduate more students in the field of Artificial Intelligence than all other brick and mortar classes combined. This class has touched thousands of students and marks the beginning of what you now know as Udacity.

The story starts in March 2011 at the TED conference. Sebastian Thrun had presented about self-driving cars, but was more inspired by hearing Salman Khan talk about his work with Khan Academy. Energized by Khan, Thrun spoke with Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research and his Stanford CS221 coprofessor, and they agreed to open up their next class to the entire world as an experiment.

In June, Thrun took the next step and co-founded a small company with fellow roboticists from Stanford - David Stavens as CEO and Mike Sokolsky as CTO.  This company was the beginnings of what eventually became Udacity when it re-launched in January this year.  

At the time, Stavens thought they’d get 500 students. Sokolsky hoped for 1,000. Norvig figured they might hit 2,000.  In late July, Thrun emailed 1,000 members of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. By the next morning 5,000 students had signed up. A few days later the class had 10,000. Just two weeks later—58,000.

As shared in a Wired Magazine article, by mid-August, word of AI class went viral after a write-up in The New York Times. Enrollment skyrocketed past 100,000. The website had been built to handle 10,000 students. Class was starting in a matter of weeks. “That,” Sokolsky says, “is when I stopped sleeping.”

One of the most interesting results, however, was not that there were so many people in the world that wanted to learn AI from top experts for free, and that there were so many people in the world who could complete such an advanced course from a top university, but the fact that many of the on-campus Stanford students stopped going to lectures. The students preferred the online version and those who participated online scored a whole grade better in both the midterm and final exam.  On this front, the experiment was considered a success. The seeds of reimagining what online learning pedagogy could be -- and the focus on learning by doing -- had been planted.

And now, for the announcement!
Since the first run of the class ended last December, we’ve received many requests from people all over the world to make the original AI class available again. We are proud to announce that Intro to Artificial Intelligence featuring Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig is available for enrollment today!

The content of the AI class is the same but with some improvements. We put a lot of thought into whether or not we should make major changes such as including programming assignments, but decided to leave them out. The class originally was not designed around programming but really to explain the fundamentals. The class does not have programming as a prerequisite, and can be taken by anyone interested in AI and willing to work hard. In the original introduction to the class Sebastian Thrun said - "the goal of this class also is to excite you about the field of Artificial Intelligence," and the class content does a great job at that. It also gives the basics about the field, and gives you enough information to know how to tackle different problems, or at least - where to look for solutions.

Since the launch of the class last year we have created a lot of other classes, some of them cover similar topics and similar instructors - both Peter and Sebastian have continued their efforts in educating the world with Intro to Statistics (a good course to take before AI Class),  Artificial Intelligence for Robotics (if you are looking for something more advanced with more programming exercises), and Design of Computer Programs (if you want to enhance your programming and problem solving skills). Peter also went on to create Course Builder at Google, which allows anyone to create online courses.

For students who took the original AI Class and received certificates, they can be accessed here.

We will continue to expand our course offerings and add engaging and challenging courses, but for now - enjoy the original, amazingly exciting AI-class!

See you in class!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sebastian Thrun wins Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Education for Udacity work!

We were honored to hear that Sebastian has won the inaugural Smithsonian Ingenuity Award in Education for Udacity! Here's a short intro video from the announcement:

As one of nine winners, we're honored to be in the company of such folks as Esperanza Spalding, Elon Musk, Benh Zeitlin, Bryan Stevenson, Pardis Sabeti, Jim Anderson, Anne Kelly Knowles, and high school sophomore, Jack Andraka (amazing!).

The full article, How Artificial Intelligence Can Change Higher Education, can be found here.

Why a Functional Verification Course? (Cross Post from Cadence)

This is cross post from Cadence about their Functional Verification Course.  (Original post here.)

On-line education pioneer Udacity is partnering with Cadence to offer an upcoming free class in functional hardware verification – but Udacity’s overall mission is quite a bit broader than that. Says David Evans, vice president of education at Udacity: “Our mission is to make high-quality higher education available to everyone in the world, and to keep it free.”

It’s an ambitious goal for the young company, which started last year when two artificial intelligence experts – Prof. Sebastian Thune, now Udacity CEO, and Peter Norvig, now Google’s director of research – decided to go on-line with a class they were teaching at Stanford University. It went viral, was picked up by the New York Times, and within a few weeks 160,000 students in over 190 countries had signed up for Udacity’s first class, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.”

Today Udacity offers the following classes:
  • Beginner courses in computer science, physics, and statistics
  • Intermediate courses  in algorithms, web development, software testing, programming languages, theoretical computer science, differential equations, software debugging, and “how to build a startup” 
  • Advanced courses in design of computer programs, artificial intelligence, and applied cryptography

Functional hardware verification will be offered in early 2013 as an advanced course. Other upcoming courses include HTML5 game development, interactive rendering, and introduction to parallel programming.

Interactive Experience
While the classes are as challenging as traditional university classes, they take advantage of new technology. “Instead of having a traditional lecture style, where the professor is talking at the students, we have a much more interactive, engaging style with exercises, videos, and short explanations,” Evans said. Students generally can’t interact with instructors in real time, as they could in a physical classroom, but Udacity provides discussion forums at which students can get answers from other students or instructors.

Udacity classrooms are “open” 24 hours a day and students can progress at whatever pace they like. They are available to anyone with Internet access. Accreditation is “something we’re working on,” Evans said.

Evans, who is currently on leave from  his post as a professor of computer science at the University of Virginia, noted that only a very small fraction of the world’s population can afford to take four years to attend brick-and-mortar universities. “Traditional universities are organized around the same ideas and processes as they were 1,000 years ago,” he said. “Our belief is that by using technology we can make the cost per student really low while delivering a high-quality learning experience.”

So how does Udacity make money? The business model is still under development, but one possibility is through add-on services such as certified testing. Recruiting fees present another possibility. Here, Udacity would identify students who could be valuable to potential employers, and the employers would pay recruiting fees to find them.

Functional Verification Class
So why teach hardware IC verification? This is not, after all, a topic that’s likely to draw 160,000 students in a few weeks. But as I heard at the DVCon conference earlier this year, many chip design companies are struggling to find qualified verification engineers, a job function that requires a combination of hardware and software skills that many university graduates lack.

“We’re really excited about the hardware verification class and the partnership with Cadence to make it available to many more people,” Evans said. “Certainly it’s in an area we think is important. In terms of useful, employable skills, it will provide a tremendous amount of value.” The Cadence partnership was announced October 18 along with Udacity partnerships with Google, nVidia, Microsoft, and Autodesk. 

The verification class is titled Functional Hardware Verification: How to Verify Chips and Eliminate Bugs. It will be taught by Cadence verification experts Axel Scherer and Hannes Froehlich in early 2013. (Scherer is a frequent Cadence blogger, and you can read his post and see a short video about the Udacity class here.) The training will be based on the e Hardware Verification Language, but does not require a knowledge of e up front. 

Scherer said that Cadence is offering the class in response to global demands for verification training, and the difficulty in reaching many parts of the world with in-person training. The class can serve design engineers moving into verification, part-time verification engineers who only use directed test, college students, engineers who want to broaden their skill sets, and unemployed engineers looking to get back into the labor market. Students should be familiar with programming in general and have some understanding of object-oriented programming.

Course content will include basic verification environments, adaptable verification environments, verification concepts, functional coverage, data checking and scoreboards, the Universal Verification Methodology, debugging, and environment control and synchronization. The class will leverage automated techniques such as constrained-random test generation.

For more information, see the Udacity web site and the functional hardware verification class description.

By Richard Goering

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Increasing Access: Download Option for our Videos Now Available

Udacity is on a mission to make great education accessible to everybody. Not only that - we aim to change and improve the teaching and learning process, to use modern technology in a field that hasn't really changed for centuries. But sometimes technology is not really helpful and instead gets in the way of our mission.

Our videos are available for free on YouTube, but not everyone is able to watch YouTube videos. Internet connections can be slow. Schools often block Youtube because of laws surrounding ads and to prevent student distractions. Sometimes, Youtube is banned throughout an entire country. People in these situations should still have access to free, high-quality education.

We have made the first step in helping all these people by providing our videos for download, bundled up by unit, with a playlist to go along, as well as (optionally) subtitles. You can find the links to the downloads in your course wiki. Just click on the wiki link from the course viewer page and you will see a page that lists the downloads (also check out the other content there and perhaps even contribute to it!). Or click here and find downloadable videos for all courses.

We also want to remind you that all our content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.

You can read the full license on the Creative Commons website, but here is a short summary:
  • You are free to share - to copy, distribute and transmit the videos
  • You must attribute the content to Udacity
  • You may not use our content for commercial purposes
  • You may not alter, transform, or build upon our content, apart from contributing to our wiki or translating it and submitting the translations back to us via our translation site.

Be Udacious and keep learning!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Join the Udacity Translation Project!

At the beginning of April, when the first run of our classes just finished, numerous students volunteered to translate our courses into their languages in hopes of making them more accessible. What started with a single post on our CS373 forum-- "can we do this?",-- launched a tremendous effort, quickly becoming a project with more than 100 people contributing in many languages. Our CS101 introduction video, for example, has now been translated into 25 languages! The most popular languages have several people collaborating, checking each others’ work and discussing the best translation of technical terminology. To date, volunteers have translated more than 1,200 videos, all through a grassroots movement started by students for students.

We’re happy to announce that we have officially joined the effort with the launch of our partnership with Amara, the crowd-sourced translation platform. In less than a week, more than 50 volunteers joined and used the platform to translate videos into Spanish, German, Chinese-Traditional, Russian, Korean, Polish, Thai, Portuguese-Brazilian, Bulgarian, and Japanese.

As previously mentioned, Steve Blanks 'How to Build a Startup: Lean LaunchPad' course will be translated to Spanish with official support from Colombia's Ministry of IT and Innovation. Several other organizations have reached out to us and are translating the course to Japanese and Russian as well. They are using our new platform, and so can you!

If you want to join our translation team and improve the reach and impact of our courses, you can do that now! Just join our team! (Instructions below)

On our team site you can find, translate, and improve subtitles for any Udacity course in a few easy steps:

  • First step is to sign up on the Amara website ( and select your language(s):
  • Then, you need to join the Udacity team:
  • Now’s the hard part- choosing which class to help translate. You can select a project from the team page. When you get to the class you want to translate, we recommend that you sort subtitles by "name, a-z."  That will make sure that the videos are sorted by the same order they appear on

  • Next, click on the video you want to translate. If the video does not have subtitles in your language, click on the "start a new translation" link and choose the language you want to translate into.

  • Follow the on-screen hints. Once you have finished a translation, it will be available right away to everyone taking Udacity courses and watching the video!
  • If you find subtitles that need improvements, select the option "Improve these subtitles" in the language selection menu.

Happy translating and thank you to all our volunteers for your time and commitment to making our courses broadly accessible!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Congratulations High School Challenge Winners!

Over the summer, Udacity students around the world competed to see which team could complete the most Udacity content.  Last Saturday, the team leaders of the seven winning High School Challenge teams came to Palo Alto from around the world to celebrate their accomplishments and meet each other and the Udacity team. Students and parents flew from the U.K. and Dominican Republic, and several were able to make it from New York and New Jersey, despite Hurricane Sandy.  

And we had an action packed day! We visited Stanford and Google to take a look at their self-driving cars. At Google, the 13 team leaders even got a chance to take a ride. 

Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun (and his son) talk to the challenge winners at Stanford.
We toured the Udacity office, where we discussed some company lore (for example, did you know that Udacity was almost named “Knowly?”), ate lunch (and in true Udacity fashion, most people sat on the floor), and had some conversations about the direction of online education.  Not surprisingly, our students have some amazing ideas.  

We wrapped up the day with a visit to the Computer History Museum and dinner. Thanks for visiting!  It was great to meet such Udacious Udacians!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Follow-up: Unanswered Questions From Our App Engine | Google Developer's Live Appearance

I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in a live Google Developer Live hangout on the topic of how Udacity uses App Engine.  Unfortunately there was not enough time to respond to all the great questions on air.  What follows is my best attempt to respond to the remaining questions.
krmboya: "In your opinion, how low-level should the average modern programmer go? Is it still worth learning assembly language and various pointer-manipulation tricks?"
I recommend you should always learn as much about computing as you can.  You can be a productive software engineer without knowing Assembly or C.  However, I do think it is necessary to eventually become familiar with Assembly or C if you want to be a really great software engineer.
Kenny: "What are the disadvantages of using Google App Engine and how does it compare to a service like Amazon's AWS?"
Shahriar: "What makes Google app engine a better choice over using the AWS stack?"
Comparing Google App Engine and AWS is like comparing a box of cake mix to a counter full of flour, sugar, water and eggs.  App Engine represents the final product of a complete platform whereas AWS gives you the ingredients that still need to be combined into a complete platform.  App Engine's advantage can also be its disadvantage:  On the one hand you don't have to do any "sys-admining" but on the other hand you can't do any sys-admining when something is going wrong.
ppmt: "I have seen the cost of using GAE but as a mere mortal it is difficult to imagine how it translated in real life. Would you be able to say how much it cost Udacity to be hosted on GAE?"
They vary greatly depending on what is trending with our course traffic as well as any ad-hoc analysis and data-dumping we have going on at the moment.  I can say, though, that even before our funding when our budget was tighter, the costs were reasonable enough that price was never a factor when determining where to implement new features.
Travis: "What is the biggest hurdle to developing an application on the cloud?"
I think that developing a solid product vision for the application is harder than building it, especially if you build it in App Engine.  My recommendation is to spend one day building a simple app in App Engine and then the next day building the same app in AWS with Elastic Beanstalk against DynamoDB + ElastiCache + CloudFront.  One is going to feel better to you than the other depending on your comfort level with the operations side of building web applications.  My advice is to just go with the one that feels better and don't look back -- if and when it comes time to move to something else, it will be obvious what type of platform you need.  In the meantime, don't let yourself get stuck trying to future-proof every decision.  It's better to have a successful app on the wrong platform than no app at all!

As for the biggest hurdle developing an application specifically on App Engine:  I would say the first hurdle is setting up your first application.  Once you have that done, you get to cruise for an surprisingly long while you build out features.  The next hurdle is re-arranging things to perform better once your app takes off.  Udacity is working through the second hurdle now and it took us about a year to get from the first to second.  The best part is that you have plenty of time to develop the level of engineering sophistication needed to get past the second hurdle -- you shouldn't expect the same kind of beating Steve describes in his course when learning how to scale Reddit.
Eric: "What types of projects would you use GAE for a real application?"
I would use App Engine for any website or mobile backend that doesn't require specialized libraries for processing.  For example, I wouldn't build Voxer on App Engine because they require things like audio stream processing, which, are going to eventually rely on low-level unix libraries written in C.  Clash of Clans on the other hand probably has a relatively straight-forward backend for saving state and managing scheduled tasks -- all things very native to App Engine with additional benefit of horizontal scale-out when the app becomes ultra popular.
Anthony: "I have been wondering what the best way to implement a chat server on the GAE would be?"
Interesting idea.  Have you looked at the XMPP Service and the Channel API?  I would expect an implementation to use one or both of them.
Мурат: "What is the copyright status of the CS253 course? Does it go under Creative Commons license? Can we translate the course into another language and share it in our websites?"
All our current courses are offered under the Creative Commons license and I am not aware of any desire to change that.  New translations are very much appreciated!  You can find existing translations and instructions for submitting new ones at our Universal Subtitles team page.
Bobi: "I really want to know if you're going to have more technology related programming classes as well. Like: - Low level programming for microcontrollers - RTOS - Embedded Design basics Thanks and keep being awesome!"
We are currently producing a course that is somewhat in this direction called Functional Hardware Verification (CS348).  Much of Udacity's team has a robotics background and we love things like hardware and programming micro controllers.  I think it is safe to expect more courses is this area, especially since it is a very employable field.  The challenge, obviously, is figuring out how to organize project-based course materials.

Udacity Flips over Entrepreneurship! 30,000 entrepreneurs from 10,000 early-stage startups in over 350 cities worldwide

We're excited to announce our partnership with the folks over at Startup Weekend that is going into super drive! Together with Steve Blank, Startup America Partnership, and Techstars, we'll be supporting a new model in entrepreneurship training that will blend online and face-to-face education. 

The innovative program aims to inspire, educate, and empower some 30,000 entrepreneurs from 10,000 early-stage startups in over 350 cities worldwide. In a four-week class, founders will learn “how to build a successful startup,” using the basics of Business Model Design from Alexander Osterwalder and Customer Development from Steve Blank, delivered via Udacity’s online classes and coached in live sessions by seasoned startup veterans.

Udacity’s online course will be delivered in a flipped classroom model by Startup Weekend, the global non-profit that’s hosted more than 800 such events worldwide. Steve Blank provided the course content; his Lean LaunchPad class has already been taken by more than 50,000 entrepreneurs online here at Udacity!  Startup America Partnership will leverage its network of 30 Startup Regions to engage entrepreneurial leaders throughout the country. TechStars will provide experienced startup mentors to coach the entrepreneurs.

Pilot tested in major cities from Athens to San Francisco, the program combines Startup Weekend’s experiential approach with the best of mentor and cohort-based accelerators. Startup Weekend’s Next program turns Blank’s online class into an experiential hands-on class with face-to-face feedback, discussion and coaching from seasoned entrepreneurs. Upon graduation, participants will have a common startup “language” and understand the process needed to jump-start their startup ideas and turn them into successful, sustainable businesses.

The first four-week Startup Weekend Next teams start work on Nov. 28, in more than 25 cities worldwide. Visit for more details!