Google VP and professor Sebastian Thrun is photographed at Udacity, his education company in California that is seeking to revolutionize education. (photo courtesy Martin E. Klimek for USA TODAY)
by Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- About a mile from the main quad at Stanford University, one of the nation's bastions of exclusive and expensive higher education, a street-level office building across the street from an Olive Garden houses the makings of an up-and-coming contender.
In this version of education, learning will be free and available to anyone who wants it while operating like a whimsical playground: No one is late for class, failure is not an option, and a lesson looks something like Angry Birds, the physics-based puzzle game that has been downloaded more than 1 billion times.
"You want learning to be as much fun as it is to play a video game," says Sebastian Thrun, a Google vice president and Stanford research professor best known for his role in building Google's driverless car.
VIDEO: The next 30 years
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Thrun, 45, is seated in a cramped, soundproof studio at Udacity, the education company he founded in January after teaching a free online artificial-intelligence course that drew more than 160,000 students. So profound was the experience that he announced he could no longer teach in a traditional Stanford classroom.
"I feel like there's a red pill and a blue pill," he famously told an audience in January at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Munich. "And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I've taken the red pill, and I've seen Wonderland."
Now, Udacity is one of a rush of online start-ups he oversees. The vision across these ventures: Develop a catalog of free online courses taught by star professors from around the world.
In this windowless room, producers create cool special effects, and video cameras capture tight shots of an instructor's hand as it writes diagrams and figures on a white board. In the next room, a dozen or so of Thrun's staff of twentysomethings are at their computers designing and assembling courses such as the just-launched Making Math Matter, in which students rescue the Apollo 13 astronauts, stop the spread of epidemics and fight forest fires.
Thrun's Udacity is neither the first nor last high-tech experiment seeking to revolutionize education, an industry that many critics agree is stuck in the last century and in dire need of an overhaul.
His friend Sal Kahn has inspired a growing number of schools across the country to "flip" their classrooms, having students study videos at night and complete homework in classrooms by day. Charter schools in Chicago and New York City have created a curriculum built around game-playing. Across Silicon Valley, start-ups such as New Charter University and UniversityNow aim to make an online college education as affordable as a cellphone bill.
How, exactly, will education look in 30 years? "I wish I had a crystal ball," Thrun says. But technology is enabling educators -- not to mention Silicon Valley entrepreneurs -- to personalize education and scale it up:
Classes will involve a sequence of increasingly more challenging exercises and quizzes aimed at helping students master a particular concept or skill.
A single class might enroll tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students, but "there will be no more one-size-fits-all," Thrun says. "Education will respond to you."
Grades -- what Thrun calls "the failure of the education system" -- won't exist. Rather, students will take as much or as little time as they need to demonstrate mastery of a particular skill or concept.
Instruction will be free, but related services might involve a fee. Among those are certification and exams, which will be conducted separately from the learning process.
Thrun says he's not planning a funeral for brick-and-mortar schools and colleges. Case in point: As film-making grew more sophisticated, did it spell the end of live theater? No, Thrun notes. Nor does film try to -- and this is key -- replicate live theater. Rather, movies became a different form of entertainment, one that could accommodate massively large audiences at relatively low prices.
Just as film enabled people all over the world to access movies, the Internet will democratize education, which today reaches a tiny fraction of those who yearn to learn, Thrun says. His vision of the future, he says, offers "a message of hope, of aspiration -- not of destruction."