Sebastian Thrun has made headlines for a variety of his accomplishments as computer scientist doing groundbreaking work on artificial intelligence. He has long been interested in robotic vehicles, leading the team that developed the car which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. He is the co-inventor of the Google Street View mapping service and is the brains behind the Google self-driving automobile. He joined Stanford University as a full professor in 2007. (Full disclosure: I’ve never met him.)

Impressive though these accomplishments are, Thrun made an announcement about a new project earlier this week at a conference in Germany that might eclipse anything he’s done. He wants to push forward some innovations in the postsecondary marketplace and change the world as an educator. Thrun has quit his tenured job at Stanford in order to start an online university called Udacity. He hopes to enroll 500,000 students for the first course—on the topic of building search engines—at no cost to the students.

There’s good reason to think Thrun’s ambition is more than a flight of fancy.

Thrun made headlines last year when he and some colleagues at Stanford offered an introductory course on artificial intelligence. It was a real course at Stanford, enrolling 200 Stanford students. There was also a parallel online version, with the same texts, quizzes, and tests that offered for successful performance not Stanford credit but a final certificate of completion. Enrollment in the online version of the course was free. After sending out an email to colleagues announcing the online class, the class went viral and ultimately more than 160,000 people from across the world signed up. Thrun told the audience in Germany that more people from Lithuania enrolled in the class than there are students at Stanford University.

With this track record, and with his deep connections to the Silicon Valley tech community and funders, Thrun’s Udacity is well worth paying attention to. And we professors in higher education had better pay attention. One of my colleagues at Stanford posted a simple observation on Twitter about the implications for the current model of higher education:

The prospect of opening up education to a global community via online learning is exciting for all kinds of reasons. But Thrun’s announcement left me with a bunch of questions in addition to excitement.

1. Why did Thrun need to quit Stanford? Why not pursue the project under the umbrella of Stanford, with its enormous and global reputation? Indeed, hadn’t he already carried out a demonstration proof of the concept with his Artificial Intelligence class at Stanford? Why not just continue with that in expanded form at Stanford?

2. Why is Udacity a for-profit company? Thrun said that Udacity courses would be free to students, and Thrun cited Salman Khan and Khan academy as inspiration and model for what he’s doing. But Khan Academy is nonprofit. Stanford University is a nonprofit. Thrun says he wants to democratize higher education, offering knowledge to the world for free. How does this mission fit with his for-profit online university?

3. What to make of Thrun’s apparent pleasure at the fact that 170 of the 200 Stanford students who had enrolled in the real, not online, version of the Stanford AI class stopped coming to class, preferring the online Thrun to the flesh-and-blood Thrun?

And then there are some questions about Thrun and his relationship to Stanford. How should Stanford University think about what Thrun has done? Felix Salmon expresses regret that Stanford was willing to invest millions in building a campus in New York City but seems unwilling to have helped Thrun build a virtual university with global reach under the Stanford name. Perhaps this is true. Or perhaps there is a much more complicated story beneath the surface.

There’s an interesting post by someone who signed up for the online version of Thrun’s Artificial Intelligence course and who actually read the Terms of Service agreement. It turns out that a company called KnowLabs Inc had developed the course website and accompanying course content (the same content that was being offered to the actual Stanford students). And then this statement: “We will provide you with, and you desire to receive, the first publicly available access to the Online Course on a noncommercial basis (i.e., beta access) to assist us in developing and evaluating the Online Course prior to any commercial release of the Course…” The Terms of Service apparently make no mention of Stanford University.

As the blogger observes, this makes the Stanford AI class sound more like a Silicon Valley start-up than Stanford University innovating with a new form of course delivery. This looks less like an Open Educational Resource initiative than a beta launch for KnowLabs Inc.

What exactly was the relationship between Stanford and KnowLabs Inc.? What is the current relationship between KnowLabs and Udacity? (The TOS on Udacity’s site make them look like related entities.) Who owns the intellectual property—the course content as well as whatever intellectual property there is in the website built to deliver the course online? If Thrun developed this class as a faculty member at Stanford – which seems to be the case—then doesn’t Stanford have some claim on at least the course content?

I see no reason to be suspicious of either Stanford or Thrun. But it would be good to see Stanford and Thrun answer some of these questions.

Bringing the knowledge developed within universities to a global population via online learning is a magnificent goal. And it appears tantalizingly within reach. All the more important, therefore, to begin answering questions about what organizational vehicle—a nonprofit or a for-profit—is the better approach and to work out the thorny issues of intellectual property. If Udacity is—to use a favorite phrase of Silicon Valley—a “game-changer” that will disrupt the business model of higher education and produce enormous social benefit to boot, let’s hope that Thrun and Stanford stand ready to address these questions.

Read a follow-up to this post, "Thurn on the Udacity Model."

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