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Can Google's Thrun Create The First Real Online College Degree?

After helping to pioneer a selection of online courses at Stanford, the man behind the driverless car is leaving the ivory tower to do something potentially more groundbreaking: start a high-quality online university.

It’s hard to keep entrepreneurs in school. Harvard couldn’t keep undergrads Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Now Stanford has lost Sebastian Thrun, the Googler behind the driverless car and one of the forces behind the university’s super-successful online classes. Worse for Stanford: Thrun is aiming to set up his own, free-for-all university.

Thrun hit the headlines most recently last autumn when a record 160,000 people registered for the AI class he co-taught at Stanford with Peter Norvig, who like Thrun is both a Stanford professor and an executive at Google. Yesterday, at Berlin’s DLD conference, Thrun announced he was quitting Stanford to create a startup he calls Udacity. (EdSurge broke the news last week when the company was still called KnowLabs.)

Thrun’s co-founders include long-time collaborators, David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky (Stavens is apparently CEO). Thrun put in $200,000 of his own money to get the project going and has since received funding from Charles River Ventures. (Udacity is offering jobs and stock options.)

In an interview with NPR, Thrun said: "My real goal [is] to invent an education platform that has high quality to it, [that] prevents cheating, [and] that really enables students to go through it to be empowered to find better jobs." And he’d like it to be available for free.

That hasn’t exactly sat well with Stanford administrators. "I think it will actually be a long time—maybe never—when actual Stanford degrees would be given for fully online work by anyone who wished to register for the courses," said James Plummer, dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering.

But will students care? Are they studying for a paper-based degree—or for the knowledge that they absorb?

The students who took Thrun’s AI class earned "certificates of accomplishment"—but nothing resembling an academic credit. Even so, an awe-inspiring 23,000 students did all the work to pass the class. Exactly 248 students had a perfect score, never getting a problem wrong throughout the whole class. More students in Lithuania took the class remotely than signed up at Stanford.

Next up: Thrun and Udacity colleague Dave Evans, who is also a computer science professor at the University of Virginia, are gearing up to offer two free classes: how to build a search engine (in seven weeks) and how to program a self-driving car. No previous programming experience is required, Evans says.

Co-founder Sergey Brin, offers this endorsement on Udacity’s website: "Computer science is really an enabler to do pretty much anything. So much of our life is about information … or some kind of computation," he says. "To be able to understand it deeply, to control it, and to be able to innovate in that field will let you innovate in any field."

Thrun is certainly innovating in education. And he concedes that this is a wild ride—without a certain outcome. Says Thrun: "I really believe in free education. I really don’t worry about money. If we change the world, we will find a way to survive."

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