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C21U Town Hall with Sebastian Thrun--Opportunities and Challenges of 21st Century Higher Education

Nearly 200 people were in attendance at the Center for 21st Century Universities Town Hall with Sebastian Thrun and David Evans. The story of Thrun's open Artificial Intelligence class has been sufficiently covered that people are beginning to ask questions not only about the class itself but also about the operational nuts and bolts of the Udacity model. 

Several key questions surfaced at the Town Hall. A common theme among many of the questions asked was “How will Udacity, primarily a learning environment, interface with traditional universities particularly with regard to research, domain and degree programs?” Thrun's response was, rather than a competitive relationship, he envisions a complementary relationship with traditional universities. He suggested that there are some experiences that traditional universities could provide that Udacity could not, research being mentioned specifically. Thrun said he found it necessary to be in close proximity to the students with whom he was conducting researching. 

Another question related to the transferability of the approach from disciplines such as computer science to more subjective disciplines such as the humanities. Currently, all courses are graded electronically, which is effective for computer science courses, but many wonder how well this model will translate into the humanities where the correctness of test questions is more subjective. More fundamentally, a question was raised about the validation of the learning approach: “What does the credential of completion Thrun offers those who successfully complete his course mean?” Certainly, as one of the foremost authorities in artificial intelligence, his certification of competency indicates something, but how will employers react? Will they recognize this kind of credential? 

More prosaically, the audience expressed interest in the operational aspects of an organization like Udacity, reflected in questions regarding cost, community, and collaboration. From a business perspective, one of the most important questions regarding the future of Udacity and the open movement in general is “Will the courses continue to be free?” Thrun maintains he is committed to keeping them so, and to accomplish this goal, he is exploring alternative funding models including generating money by recruiting top talent for employers.  For Thrun, one of the most motivational aspects of Udacity is the ability to provide access to high-quality education to populations around the world regardless of the ability to pay for it. 

In reference to the communities forming around Udacity's classes, Thrun believes they are critical contributors to students’ success, but that community norms and standards are still evolving. For instance, when asked about how Udacity safeguards against cheating, Thrun and Evans admitted that this was a problem that might have to be addressed administratively in the future. More generally, however, what is considered “cheating” in a traditional classroom model might alternatively be seen in some organizations as collaboration.

Finally, one of parameters that Udacity is currently experimenting with is “How flexible should the course content be?” One of the greatest complaints that Udacity's students had was their inability to complete the assignments within the recommended time. Among recently released courses, however, some have flexible deadlines to see whether or not the deadlines will encourage students to complete assignments in a timely manner or hindered students with already full workloads.

Ultimately, despite these uncertainties, many recognize the transformative power of the projects like Udacity. Innovators like Thrun and Evans, educators in higher education, researchers, and students themselves will be instrumental in answering these and other questions. 

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