Udacity Chief Says He Would Send His Son to a Traditional University

September 13, 2016, 6:32 PM UTC
Unicorn 2016 Sebastian Thrun Udacity
Sebastian Thrun, co-founder and chief executive officer of Udacity Inc., stands for a photograph after a Bloomberg West Television interview in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Friday, March 14, 2014. Udacity Inc. provides and promotes digital education services offering free online courses in computer science, mathematics, general sciences, programming, and entrepreneurship with lecture videos, quizzes and homework assignments. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

A few years ago, when MOOCs—or “massive online open courses”—were on the rise, their passionate advocates hailed them as the next big thing in education.

But not so fast.

“If my son was admitted to, say, Carnegie [Mellon University] or Udacity, I would send him to Carnegie [Mellon],” Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, an online education service focused on tech subjects, said on Tuesday.

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Thrun described colleges and universities as still “incredibly old” in their approach to teaching and in their format. Services like Udacity, therefore, aren’t competing with them, he said.

“There’s still a lot of inertia, and there’s benefits to university that we can’t cover,” he said, speaking at the annual TechCrunch Disrupt tech conference in San Francisco. Campus life and its social interactions are very important for young adults, he added.

Thrun recently taught a course in Stanford University. He’s also recently created a course for Georgia Tech University, though he says it’s online and he’s not actively involved in teaching it.

Thrun’s vision is that traditional college education will continue, but that it will evolve with more modern touches over time. Services like Udacity, which has started offering “nanodegrees,” or small programs with a focus akin to mini-degrees of study, will operate in parallel by helping people with life-long learning, as he says.

This idea of continuous education for learning new skills—as opposed to relatively brief stints at college— is something Thrun says hasn’t really become the norm yet.

Speaking of his nanodegrees, Thrun noted that his company has had to deliver on its promise to refund tuition to graduates who fail to find jobs in their field of study within six months. That’s not to say that every student has found a job because not all complete courses for that purpose. But last year alone, 500 nanodegree students were able to get jobs thanks to their new education, said Thrun.

And nanodegrees from Udacity seem to be slowly gaining the trust and recognition from employers. Indian e-commerce company Flipkart, for example, has hired some Udacity nanodegree holders without even interviewing them, Thrun said.

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