Sebastian Thrun Champions Lifelong Vocational Education

Written by Larry Press

Sebastian Thrun steers Udacity to lifelong vocational education. Here’s why. — Sebastian Thrun, the co-founder of Udacity and the man who popularized MOOCs, is a programmer, a robotics developer, a Google VP, and a professor at Stanford University.

As an educator, Thrun has previously championed college-level educational opportunities for students around the globe. But recently he’s changed his emphasis and pivoted toward vocational education.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

His switch was inspired by the poor results of San Jose State University students who used Udacity materials rather than traditional textbooks in “flipped” classrooms. The situation at SJSU left Thrun disillusioned. “I’d aspired to give people a profound education, to teach them something substantial,” he said. “But the data was at odds with this idea.”

It was Thrun himself who prepared the material for an introductory statistics course at SJSU. “From a pedagogical perspective,” he said, “it was the best I could have done — it was a good class.”

But, unfortunately, the students did poorly. As a result, Thrun concluded that he had a “lousy product.”

Ultimately, I think Thrun’s elite background led him down a garden path. Any SJSU professor who taught a basic statistics class could have told him that many (if not most) students don’t have the mathematical skills of a typical Stanford coed.

His response to this experience is to now focus on industrial education. Said Thrun: “At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment.” As such, Thrun and his group at Udacity are now working with AT&T to develop a master’s degree at Georgia Tech and training material for developers.

Thrun’s revelation has produced a sense of schadenfreude among some academics, who were happy to say “we told you so” and perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that their jobs would remain secure.

But, even if many college courses are best taught in a conventional classroom (or in a flipped class with a conventional textbook), those jobs may still be in danger. If Thrun is right about industrial education, that jobs are the true value of education, we may see more and more students foregoing college altogether for offerings like Thrun’s.

Those San Jose students want jobs and they are increasingly aware of the rising direct cost and opportunity cost of a college degree.

When speaking of his 5-year-old son, Thrun reveals his vision of the future of education. “I hope he can hit the workforce relatively early and engage in lifelong education,” he said. “I wish to do away with the idea of spending one big chunk of time learning.”

Udacity has already moved into workforce training, and I think it has been working on lifelong learning all along.

Check out this article (here) for more information about Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun and his 2011 artificial intelligence class at Stanford University.

For, I’m Larry Press.

Based in Los Angeles, Larry Press is a founding senior editor covering tech here at He’s also a professor of information systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills. Check his Google+ profile — he’s at +Larry Press — or email him at


  • The height of chutzpah and chipocrisy for companies that glom, hoard, sell, and otherwise dispense your every bit of personal data to complain the NSA, of which they are at least equals.