Dirks, Udacity CEO square off in online-learning debate

SAN FRANCISCO — Fundamental questions about the purpose of education and the function of the university were raised Thursday evening as Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Stanford University research professor and Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun took the stage at the World Affairs Council to discuss — and, at times, debate — the future of online learning.

While college-level courses have been offered online at Berkeley and other institutions since the 1990s, the more recent spread of broadband Internet, coupled with advances in technology such as efficient video streaming, have led educators to rethink the potential capabilities and reach of the medium.

Chancellor Dirks and Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun faced off in a debate about online learning Thursday at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco.

In 2011, Thrun started the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) movement when he began offering course materials from his artificial intelligence class online, and at no cost, to anyone interested. To his surprise, 160,000 learners from around the world signed up for the class. Leaving a tenured Stanford professorship behind, Thrun founded Udacity in 2012 to facilitate the creation of similar online courses and educate the world’s learners at a low cost.

“Education is the thing that empowers people,” Thrun said Thursday. “Today you can find 12-year-old kids in Pakistan taking courses on Udacity. There’s a training center in Ghana that runs these classes. It’s stunning to me how much progress we’ve made in just two years.”

Chancellor Dirks discusses the ways in which UC Berkeley has experimented with blending online educational tools with the brick-and-mortar classroom. (UC Berkeley photos by Saul Bromberger)

The discussion between Thrun and Dirks centered on how MOOC technology will affect existing systems of higher education in the United States and elsewhere. At Berkeley, Dirks said, professors and administrators are experimenting with MOOCs to better analyze how students learn and as a tool to expand the reach of university programs. Berkeley has enrolled more than 700,000 students in the 10 MOOC courses that have launched since 2012.

“This is not the first time that the promise of universal education has been offered,” Dirks said, citing the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, which enabled any Californian — regardless of socioeconomic status — to pursue an affordable yet first-rate college experience. “But online classes make it possible, for the first time, to introduce forms of lifelong learning that can fundamentally change the kind of access that people have, on a global scale, to high-quality education.”

“Berkeley will do our part in that,” Dirks said.

Thrun, however, questioned whether the university should be the central vehicle in educating learners in the future.  His company is currently rolling out a new education credential, the nanodegree, which he hopes will validate the work of those who pass Udacity courses in the eyes of employers.

Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun, nicknamed the “godfather of MOOCs,” outlines his goals for a new partnership with several Silicon Valley tech companies.

“A lot of what we have today in education is grounded in the past, when we had a different labor force, a different society and a different technology base. Our school year, for example, is from a time when most of us were farmers, and we needed the kids at home in the summers to work on the farm.”

“I want to ask the fundamental question,” Thrun said. “If we were to reinvent education today, what would we do?”

Another area of contention surrounded the purpose of education. Thrun’s classes are primarily geared toward workforce and skills training, but Dirks argued that vocational training was only one side of the coin.

“There have been debates over the course of the 19th and entire 20th century about the principal goal of education: Whether it is in fact to form the moral and intellectual character of our young people — to train them to be citizens, moral subjects — or, especially after the onset of the industrial revolution, to train people for vocational ends.”

“The University of California was an interesting amalgam,” Dirks said. “It was set up to train the moral and intellectual faculties on the one side, and the mechanical and vocational on the other. I continue to believe we can do it all.”

While the speakers engaged in a spirited debate for much of the evening, both Dirks and Thrun did agree on a central point: Access to education isa key issue facing the United States and world, especially in the 21st-century knowledge-based economy.

“I’ve worked on self-driving cars, on variable computers, on Internet for everybody, on contact lenses that help manage diabetes, and I think education — specifically access to education — is the single biggest thing that we can work on,” Thrun said.

“We agree entirely,” added Dirks.