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Online Courses and the $100 Graduate Degree 339

First time accepted submitter GCA10 writes "Forbes reports on the latest project of Google Fellow Sebastian Thrun (the proponent of self-driving cars.) He's moved on to education now, believing that conventional university teaching is way too costly, inefficient and ineffective to survive for long. So he started Udacity, which aims to deliver an online version of a master's degree for $100 per student. From the article: 'Udacity’s earliest course offerings have been free, and although Thrun eventually plans to charge something, he wants his tuition schedule to be shockingly low. Getting a master’s degree might cost just $100. After teaching his own artificial intelligence class at Stanford last year—and attracting 160,000 online signups—Thrun believes online formats can be far more effective than traditional classroom lectures. “So many people can be helped right now,” Thrun declares. “I see this as a mission.”'"
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Online Courses and the $100 Graduate Degree

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  • I took his AI class (Score:5, Interesting)

    by John Courtland ( 585609 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:13PM (#40239943)
    I thought his whimsical attitude and passion for teaching were amazing and I learned a lot for zero dollars. I'd easily pay 100 bucks to have him teach me more stuff.
    • by snkline ( 542610 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:23PM (#40240019)
      I didn't care much for the AI class (I took the Machine Learning class at the same time, which I felt was far superior), however his Robot Car class was really good. It took the practical application aspect the Machine Learning class had, making it far more engaging. I love Udacity, Coursera and MITx, the problem is I think I'm a little ADD, I sign up for just about everything and can't keep up given the limited time I can devote to them outside work.
    • by Crazy Taco ( 1083423 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:23PM (#40240021)

      I don't think the issue is whether people can be taught for low amounts money. Clearly they can. Just have a HUGE number listening online, and you can make a living easilly by spreading the cost among them. Per student, it will be very low.

      The real problem is the cost of evaluating what students know. You can't give someone a master's degree unless you can evaluate that they know their stuff, or else the degree becomes worthless. And evaluations require tests. True, you *could* make all the tests multiple choice, but what about times when a hands on test in a lab environment is needed? What about times when creativity is required in the answer, or designs have to be drawn, etc, and it can't be fit into a multiple choice test? A computer can't grade that. Humans have to. Hiring TAs for 160,000 people is going to raise the cost far above $100. Unless he plans to just do multiple choice, in which case, his students will likely be good at memorization and not hands on application. And cheating may also be easier with 160,000 people taking anonymous multiple choice tests.

      And I would also argue a lot of good educations require hands on lab training too, which is something else that becomes costly when you think of test lab infrastructures for so many people.

      • by snkline ( 542610 )
        This is why I think this is a better model for things like computer science and engineering, rather than subjects in the humanities for instance. You can't automatically grade essays, but you can automatically grade software projects, which demonstrate an understanding of the subject matter.
        • and why should I have to pay $$$ for humanities classes for a IT or engineering job?? at least some of that stuff can be offered at a much lower cost.

          It's all the filler (that are some schools you don't have that much choice over) at some schools a over load of GEN edu classes (does a IT / desktop job really need tig and other higher Math classes?) some required classes are just there to fill up classes and to make people pay more (some schools still have the swim test)

          Why do have pay fees at the college pr

          • by WastedMeat ( 1103369 ) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @12:01AM (#40240683)

            As a scientific programmer, I find it amazing that any significant portion of people in serious IT place no value on math higher than and including trigonometry. Is this actually the case?

            And as a citizen in a democracy, I find it amazing and frightening that a significant portion of people who actually vote see no value in general education courses. When I was a kid in the 90's, we used to call someone a "tool" as an insult.

            • I'm an Egineer and did Calculus, Complex Math, Applied Math, Statistics etc. In practice I do Reading and Riting and almost zero Rithmetic.
            • by tibit ( 1762298 )

              It seems that the only value of general education courses is in making you fit in with other people who think the same. I'm yet to find anything to show otherwise. I'm serious. I'm not saying that nothing else but science should be of any interest. Quite to the contrary, I find it pleasurable to explore areas of theatre and literature that interest me. I'm not going to pretend it's of any use other than giving me the pleasure of learning it. It may perhaps improve my writing a bit, but that's not very impor

            • by Belial6 ( 794905 ) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @02:30AM (#40241295)
              People take 13 years of general ed classes before they ever get to college. If they haven't gotten a decent general education by that time, they are not going to get it with a few more years.
      • by khasim ( 1285 ) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:35PM (#40240095)

        Right now we have testing centers for vendor-specific certifications.

        Run the classes on-line for whatever price.
        Those who just want to learn can stop there.
        Those who want a degree can pay to take the tests at the testing centers.

        For more complex tests either offer them in central locations or have traveling test sites. These would be more expensive than the other tests, but probably a LOT cheaper than the current model.

      • by shimage ( 954282 )
        No point in testing their lab skills, if they haven't spent any time in a lab. Not sure how you can spend time in a lab online, but maybe someone clever will figure it out.
        • by snkline ( 542610 )
          What I would like to see is integration of online learning with things like this Techshop [techshop.ws]. I would love a 'Bioshop' which contains lots of medical/biological lab tools allowing people to learn lecture material online, and do lab work after of course passing some safety courses. The problem of course, is that such a thing is fairly niche compared to Techshop, but I can dream.
      • Too Late! (Score:4, Insightful)

        by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @11:22PM (#40240461)

        You can't give someone a master's degree unless you can evaluate that they know their stuff, or else the degree becomes worthless.

        Between grade inflation and cheating it seems like that is awfully close to true for the vast majority of degrees today.

      • by Johnny Mnemonic ( 176043 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `eromsnidm'> on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @11:45PM (#40240605) Homepage Journal

        160,000 students @ $100 each is $16M.

        $16M at $32k buys 500 TAs / year.

        160K students / 500 TAs is 320 students / TA.

        One TA could give each student one dedicated hour every other month and maintain a regular 40 hr per week year round schedule.

        That's not that far off from being reasonable.

        If you pay the TAs only $15K-20K you would have budget for overhead and profit, or more TAs for more FTF time.

        • by discontinuity ( 792010 ) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @01:07AM (#40240973)

          160,000 students @ $100 each is $16M.

          $16M at $32k buys 500 TAs / year.

          160K students / 500 TAs is 320 students / TA.

          One TA could give each student one dedicated hour every other month and maintain a regular 40 hr per week year round schedule.

          That's not that far off from being reasonable.

          If you pay the TAs only $15K-20K you would have budget for overhead and profit, or more TAs for more FTF time.

          A full-load TA generally can work only 20 hours/week at the job, so the numbers are off by a factor of two. One hour per month is a little low to begin with, and 30 minutes per month is not workable unless the assignments are trivial to grade. 30 min/month is something like 7.5 minutes per week.

          There are some efficiencies to be had by moving elements of education online. For example, discussion boards are a great way to answer a question once for the entire class to see. Sometimes students will even answer questions other students have posted. But there is no economy of scale on grading and providing useful feedback. Some things are inherently labor intensive.

      • The real problem is the cost of evaluating what students know.

        That's what internships are for.

        That may be the future: DIY college education plus unpaid competitive internships.

      • Robotic Car and AI Class tests are NOT multiple choice. You actually write code, or compute answers by hand. And that code gets evaluated by how far it diverges from the ideal.

    • You mean the zero effort and no preparation? It was total embarrassment.

      Hope he'll put more effort into his new venture.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:19PM (#40239981)

    I want to see free education thru the PhD level as some countries offer. There is no reason it should cost a fortune to become educated. It's a legal racket, much like for-profit healthcare and pharmaceuticals.

    What stops me from going back to college now in my mid-forties is ROI. I cannot afford to be in massive debt what with a wife and kid. My wife has massive school debt from her degree and it would be grossly unfair to add to that already burdensome bill.

    Great idea... praying it succeeds.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:27PM (#40240047)

      I want to see free education thru the PhD level as some countries offer.

      A PhD is free in the United States. I just completed my Doctorate and I was paid $20,000 per year to do it. In the sciences and engineering fields, at a research university, you're paid off of grant money. Tuition usually either waved or paid for you off the grant.

      Now if you go into a non reacher field like the humanities or the pure mathematics, you will have to pay your own way.

  • by thatDBA ( 2626877 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:20PM (#40239987)
    Everybody knows you can't get a quality education for cheap! This is the land of the Private University that offers freedom by enslaving you in debt.
    • by sarysa ( 1089739 )
      Except the racket is heavily based on public institutions. Look at what's been happening in California for the last 20 years. You're right that it's unamerican -- unencumbered, free market competition should have swept in long, long ago.

      I wish Sebastian Thrun all the best.
    • by Fjandr ( 66656 )

      While the end result of your complaint is true, the reason it is true is not likely the one you put forward (private education). With the exception of a fairly new breed of commercial diploma mills (which target those who make poor economic decisions, much like any other predatory industry), private universities in the USA are responding to the same pressure sources public universities are. Public universities have had funding cut, while private universities lost major chunks of their endowments to the late

  • by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:27PM (#40240051)

    "The idea of a degree is that you spend a fixed time right after high school to educate yourself"

    Some stuff seems to be padded out to fit a 2 or 4 year plan when offering it NON degree / as badges system is better.

    http://chronicle.com/article/Badges-Earned-Online-Pose/130241/ [chronicle.com]

  • by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:29PM (#40240065)

    We need more Tech schools / apprenticeships as yes you do need some training but CS is not IT and 2-4 years is a long time to sit in class room with at times learning very few skills needed to do the job.

  • ...however, (Score:5, Insightful)

    by HomoErectusDied4U ( 1042552 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:31PM (#40240069)
    As a university instructor I recognize that the writing's on the wall - online courses will inevitably replace many aspects of higher education. Much of what I teach is already freely available on the internet. There are already many online lectures from which I crib material for my own lectures.

    That said, there are many important things that simply can't be taught via computer. I am an evolutionary biologist (specifically human evolution), so that is what I know: you can't learn anatomy at the graduate level without cadavers, period. You can't learn biological variation without dissecting and studying many cadavers. You can't learn comparative anatomy without dissecting animals. You can't learn the fossil record without handling the fossils (or high quality casts). You can't learn population genetics without spending time in a sequencing lab. You can't learn field biology without going to the field. You can't learn paleontology without going to the field. There are many things that I learned in my graduate training that simply can't be taught on a computer.

    Personal tutelage by a master is similarly an irreplaceable experience. I've learned an enormous amount of information from watching online lectures and taking online courses in subjects outside of my specialties - but I would absolutely not consider myself on par with people who have traditional graduate training in these fields. I loved the AI class - but Professor Thrun never discussed my ideas with me, criticized my writings on the topic, and certainly never helped me design a project and then execute it. I can't call, Skype, or email authorities in AI to chat about the newest papers in the field - because I simply never met them through the online course.

    As enthusiastic as I am about the exciting possibilities of newfangled gadgetry, computers and the internet are still tools with limitations. Powerful tools, but not totipotent tools. Sometimes newer isn't better. Sometimes newer is worse.

    • by shimage ( 954282 )
      One of my degrees is a non-thesis master's and I always thought a degree like that (without any lab experience) basically just a pretty piece of paper. More or less everything useful I learned in grad school, I either learned in the lab or from the people I met at conferences.
    • when higher edu wants Physical Education as a required class it shows that it is a cash grab and some ways a rip off.

      • by snkline ( 542610 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @11:05PM (#40240323)
        Your problem (and most people's it seems) is that you think higher ed is supposed to be vocational training. That is what trade schools and community colleges should be for. Universities exist not only to train you in a particular field, but also to make you a well rounded educated person. Yes, that even involves some level of education in physical skills you may not possess (I certainly enjoyed my Archery class). Unfortunately our society has grown to value the Bachelor's degree so much, that institutions of higher education are being pushed more and more into being really long, expensive, trade schools.
      • by Guppy06 ( 410832 )

        Because why would an employer want employees that are more likely to keep fit and keep their health insurance costs down?

    • by ZPO ( 465615 )

      Some classes are enhanced by interaction with the professor, other students, and invaluable hands-on lab time. Other classes can be completed online without losing any of the value. Take for example the common core classes of mathematics, liberal arts, history, etc. Does the student gain anything by physically sitting in a classroom? If these classes can be taken care of online for little cost then the student's scarce time and treasure can be leveraged to attend only the courses which benefit from inte

    • There is no reason labs have to be done in university settings.

      You could have totally independent, for profit companies running labs for every kind of science that people could take part in. I can also see universities opening up labs only to outside students for a reasonable fee.

      As you say, so much learning can be done online... in the end all that will be left for universities is truly the world of higher education, not of freshman level stuff.

    • I imagine core courses split between lecture and problem sessions will have the lecture portion replaced by digital distribution in the next 20 years or so. The benefits of physically attending a huge lecture are too low for cost-conscious schools to stomach indefinitely, especially if really high-quality lectures by gifted educators can be used.

    • by Manfre ( 631065 )

      If the current trend of stupidity continues in America, you won't have to worry about whether or not online education is not as good as hands on. You'll have long given up teaching from frustration when a law passes stating you must give equal time to creationist theories.

    • As a university instructor I recognize that the writing's on the wall - online courses will inevitably replace many aspects of higher education.

      In the same way and for the same reasons that McDonald's has replaced a home cooked meal, it's cheap, easy, and convenient.

  • by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:38PM (#40240119)

    there are people going to college who are not cut out off it and there are lot's of classes that should be in college any ways.

    • by rueger ( 210566 ) * on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:49PM (#40240201) Homepage
      ... I'm not sure. Insightful? Funny? Guess it depends on how you view it...
    • The root problem is we've dumbed high school down to the point where everyone pretty much has to graduate high school to get a job. When everyone has a high school diploma people need to distinguish themselves even more so they go for a bachelor's degree, we're slowly dumbing that down to the point where people are going to need to distinguish themselves even more and get a master's degree... and so on and so on.

      It isn't about the knowledge. Let's face it, on-the-job training tells you 99% of what you n
      • by Salgak1 ( 20136 )
        No, it's about how to USE that knowledge, to combine facts and techniques to solve problems. THAT is the value of, and the supposed goal, of higher education.

        Despite the fact that it has become a de-facto job credential. . .

  • by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @10:39PM (#40240127)
    Of course it is possible to get a world class education for $100 or less, but education isn't why people go to college. The real reasons to get a college degree go beyond simple knowledge:

    A) Get a worthless piece of paper to distinguish yourself. Sure, it isn't good, it isn't a positive trend, but in many fields unless you have a bachelor's or master's degree your application won't even be looked at.

    B) Provides opportunities for networking with like minded students and employers. In high school most people couldn't meet with very many like minded students, especially if they were into computer science. There is a reason many start-ups happen in college, you can get all the "right" type of people, you get the people with vision, you get the code monkeys skilled with every programming language under the sun, you get the hardware people and you have thousands of potential customers right at your university.

    C) It provides a chance to go out and see the world. Being a student you usually don't have much of anything tying you down to a single country. I mean, sure, you've got family, but spending a year in France, six months in Singapore, a few weeks in Andorra isn't anything major.

    D) It provides a lot of "hobby time" to work on pet projects and research, especially at graduate level. When you are employed for a company, everything needs to be justified in terms of profit. In college you can just do things for the heck of it.

    Every "book knowledge" thing you can learn in college can be learned for free online. In the rare case it can't be found online, it can be found in the textbook which you can buy without registering for the class. Yes, you do have a handful of really good professors, but the best thing they provide isn't book knowledge, it is guidance.
    • by Fjandr ( 66656 )

      Of course it is possible to get a world class education for $100 or less, but education isn't why people go to college.

      Not anymore, though that used to be the primary purpose of higher education. Back when it only cost $150/year ($3,000 in today's currency) to go to one of the top private universities in the US, that's what college was for. Of course, there was always a networking component, but that's actually also been true of just about every practical post-secondary endeavor in existence. I'm not sure w

    • by fermion ( 181285 )
      I would say a graduate degree indicates that one can create valid knowledge. I know that the for-profit business programs, promoted not only by for-profit but also public universities, have significantly degraded the meaning of a graduate degree, but that does not mean that we must accept that education is no longer a possibility.

      Certain things may change over time. We may not all go to work and physically collaborate. We may no longer need to pay huge amounts for journals, or need to pay huge amount t

  • should we move most gen edu to community colleges? With that ending up being a new base level Degree. And from there on the idea of Degrees is rework to them being more about what you are learning and are filled to the skills and not the fixed time tables of the old degree system.

    Then after that you can stay at the community college and take vol classes, go to a tech school, take a apprenticeship, go on to a pre med school (reworked with any need higher level gen edu)

  • by thereitis ( 2355426 ) on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @11:11PM (#40240369) Journal
    No serorities, frat parties, or jocks. Just a guy sitting in front of his computer in his underwear filling out quizzes. The plot will center around the reliability of his Internet connection and the pesky neighbours who keep knocking at his door.
  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Wednesday June 06, 2012 @11:46PM (#40240609) Homepage Journal

    text books. Html 5 interactive text books. Start with K-5, then move on up.


  • I have just finished a couple of online classes with udacity, Applied Cryptography CS387 and Design of Computer Programs CS212. The latter class was fine although they totally messed up the final. Each problem required corrections and/or clarifications. CS387 was a joked taught by a novice. Things like using padding that you can’t reverse, or sending encrypted messages that only a person who intercepts multiple of them can decrypt (the intended recipients were unable to decrypt the message they receiv
  • by SuperCharlie ( 1068072 ) on Thursday June 07, 2012 @12:32AM (#40240813)
    Here's the deal.. I agree with the concept, principle, and methodology here. Overall I think it is a great idea. Problem is that the govt is hand over fist into the higher education market. Student loans which are conveniently not unloadable by bankruptcy have reached almost a trillion dollars of unforgiveable, never ending debt, and just a year or so ago the entire financing program was completely taken over by the govt. This kind of money does not simply walk out of Mordor.
  • US vs Europe (Score:5, Insightful)

    by giuseppemag ( 1100721 ) <giuseppemag.gmail@com> on Thursday June 07, 2012 @02:40AM (#40241359)

    I paid a total of 10000$ to get a BSc, an MSc and a PhD in Computer Science in Italy. I now work happily as a researcher in the Netherlands.

    Higher education should not be treated as an enterprise. Higher knowledge is a very scarce commodity (an online recording system/whatever is not the same thing, otherwise the easily available books would be more than sufficient to get any degree); this means that schools are effectively a monopoly without much competition.

    Who can solve this? The state. Look all over Europe for the simple solution: higher education benefits everyone and is paid (because paid it must be) by the state mostly and the end user a little bit. The little bit in some cases is increased if the student is not passing enough exams. There are also *lots* of scholarships that both look at ability and low income, and these often end up supporting poorer students who do not necessarily have excellent results but just ok results.

    Why does the state need to step in? Because Communism is great and Mother Russia is close-by? No: the state needs to step in because the gain with more educated citizens is of the collective, not just the subject of the education.

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