Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun On The Future Of Education
There are few entrepreneurs who can compete with Sebastian Thrun in terms of creativity and breadth of innovation. He led the development of Stanley, a robotic vehicle on the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. He was a founder of the Google X Lab, and parlayed his earlier success with Stanley into the Google driverless car system. He also was among the leaders who developed Google Glass. All the while he was a professor first at Carnegie Mellon and then at Stanford.
In early 2012, based on inspiration from Salman Khan of Khan Academy, he co-founded Udacity, a for-profit education company offering massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Thrun’s Stanford course “CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car” was among the first couple of courses offered through Udacity, and it attracted 160,000 students in 190 countries. The youngest was ten and the oldest was 70. Moreover, none of the top-400 students were Stanford students. He was so excited about what he learned, that he gave up his post at Stanford to focus on Udacity full-time.
(To hear an extended audio version of this interview, please visit this link. To read interviews with other education technology leaders such as the CEOs of Coursera, edX, Khan Academy, and FutureLearn, please click the “Follow” link above. To read about Thrun’s thoughts on what immigrating to America has meant to him, please read this article.)
Peter High: You have been an entrepreneur in a variety of fields. You have taught and applied artificial intelligence. You helped spawn Google Glass. Now you are the CEO of a prominent education company offering MOOCs. What are the common denominators among the opportunities you have pursued?
Sebastian Thrun: Well there are two things to it, one is I love to pick problems that are really big and important. In education, we seek to address the problem of how to democratize and bring education everywhere. The second thing that drives me is I love to learn, and I love to do things I haven’t done before. And I enjoy the intellectual exercise of doing something new. Ideas like Google Glass emerged from such exploration.
Additional topics covered in the article include:
- Speaking of the university you are creating at Udacity, can you talk a bit about the genesis of the idea?
- What do you see the impact of Udacity here in America on higher education as well as what sort of evolution do you see happening in the field?
- How have you selected the courses that are included in Udacity to date and how do you see those evolving as you go forward?
- How do you choose the universities that you partner with, is there a criteria that you use in determining which ones are appropriate and which ones are not?
- What do you see as the ongoing revenue model for the organization, and how do you see that evolving as you look in your crystal ball seven years down?
- Can you talk about some of the key performance indicators that you look at to evaluate whether the organization is making progress?
- As others seek your advice in terms of areas to focus or ways to get more involved in entrepreneurship, what sort of advice do you offer as you reflect upon the path that you have taken?
- One last area that I wanted to ask you about is strategy; as you are in a very dynamic space in a company that is moving very quickly how do you think about the planning process?
- Lastly, as you think about the sort of team that you need to put together in order to build an organization like this, how did you think about the balance of different skills how do you think about the sort of staff that you need?