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With Udacity, Former Stanford Professor Goes All-In on Online Learning

With Udacity, Sebastian Thrun wants to unleash the "true power of education."

Last fall, Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun took the democratization of education to the next level, offering a virtual version of their Stanford class Intro to Artificial Intelligence for free. The experiment was a resounding success, enrolling an astounding 160,000 students and spurring Stanford to offer an additional seven computer-science classes for free online.

Now Thrun (pictured above) has announced that after seeing "the true power of education" he's giving up his tenured professor position to launch Udacity, an online learning platform that will use technology to provide a free, high-quality education to anyone. "There's no turning back. It's like a drug," Thrun said at Monday's Digital Life Design conference as he discussed how the AI class experience inspired him to educate the masses.

Many of the 20,000 people that stuck with the online course through the final exam came from backgrounds unlike those of the students in Thrun's 200-person classes at Stanford. He spoke of a student from warn-torn Afghanistan who sent a letter describing how he risked his life to reach an internet hotspot so he could complete assignments. Ten percent of students were women, who are significantly underrepresented in computer science. Being "able to touch lives" in that way, Thrun said, made it impossible for him to go back to the traditional model of higher education at Stanford.

Thrun will co-teach Udacity's first class, CS 101: Building a Search Engine, with David Evans, a computer science professor from the University of Virginia. The pair says that in seven weeks they'll be able to teach computer-science newbies enough programming to enable them to "build a web search engine like Google or Yahoo."

In a testimonial video, Google co-founder Sergey Brin recommends that everyone take CS 101 because "computer science is really an enabler for you to do pretty much everything." For more advanced programmers, Thrun is also offering a course on building robotic cars that taps his world-renowned expertise.

Thrun hopes half a million students will sign up to take the first Udacity class. If that happens, he would break records for teaching the most people at the same time. He told the Digital Life Design conference he's ready for the challenge: "If we can make education free and accessible for the world, we can achieve things we never thought possible."

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