Monday, November 25, 2013

Sebastian Thrun and the 21st Century Textbook

About a month ago I was attending the Tech-X conference at USAA's main campus.  What a great setup they have for all their Information Technology employees.  They push for employee innovation and customer satisfaction at every turn.

The keynote speaker for the event was Sebastian Thrun (DARPA Grand Challenge, Google Glass, Google Autonomous car, Standford Professor, Udacity, genius...)

This guy has been around the block in new technologies and has a complete and contagious passion for his work.

For his talk, however, he wasn't there to sell Google products (there were other's there to do that...), he wasn't there to advertise Standford graduates, and he wasn't there to make Google Glass look good (although he was sporting a new model for the duration of his talk, pretty sure it did things like measure pulse and interest level of each member of the audience to motivate his flow through the slides).

He was there to talk about Udacity.

Udacity, for those unfamiliar, is a site similar to Khan Academy/edX/Coursera, where you can "advance your education and career through project-based online classes"1.

He spoke about listening to Salman Khan (creator of Khan Academy) at a Ted Talk, and being amazed that this hedge fund manager (read: NOT professor) had touched and educated so many students around the globe.  He calculated that the number of students Khan had taught to that date far exceeded the number of students he had ever taught at Stanford or even ever would teach at Stanford.

The concept was amazing.

Not that this was a competition, but how did he get in on this?  Why was he (his words) "wasting" his time teaching the same material over and over again, every semester or every year.  Being a parrot was not a good use of his time.

Not to tell the entire story in depth ... but Thrun got some grad students on staff and with a budget of $100,000 set out to and successfully offered a Stanford class, CS221 Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, for free to anyone that would sign up.

The response was amazing: 160,000 from 190 countries.2

Thrun showed on the screen excerpts of emails he received from students throughout the course.  Students (his words again) that were not Stanford material.  We're talking about single moms struggling to make monthly bills bouncing sick kids on knees, we're talking soldiers deployed in corners of the earth that only had Internet access but a few hours a week (which they spent on class work).

The reach was amazing.

In the end, of course only a small subset, about 23,000, of the initial 160,000 finished the class with a passing grade.  But the first actual Stanford student was ranked somewhere halfway to 100.  And he joked that his students that were actually paying for the class stopped coming to class and started watching him online instead.

The results and the journey ... were amazing.

So what?

The so what here for the Navy and for everyone else, is that the textbook is being reinvented, truly innovated.

Innovation is not a one-up on the version control, it is not just an upgrade or a bug fix, it is starting from scratch to change the way people think about a particular challenge.

The 21st Century Textbook is truly multimedia.  Interactive.  Video.  Audio.  (and still) Text and Pictures.  And searchable (how often did you wish your textbook had a Ctrl+F feature?).

Usage of the 21st Century Textbook is not all that much different than a traditional textbook.  Everyone has heard the professor plead with students, "pleeease read the chapter on <fill in the blank> before coming to class so we can discuss."

The goal is (and arguably always has been) to have the student learn the lesson before attending class.  This way the student can interact with the professor and other students on material with which they already have a familiarization.  As Thrun mentioned, this way it doesn't "waste" the time of the professor in being a parrot.

Interaction is where the differences lie.  In this multimedia textbook, it is the hope that it not only motivates students to open the metaphorical cover but to then be enamored with a desire to learn and to keep learning on that particular topic.

Think students are motivated to learn just because it is their job?  Welcome to reality.

But even better than motivation, is the quantity and quality of material to which that student will now be exposed.  The Internet provides near-real time content.  If we can harness and tame that beast (a goal of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia), our textbooks will be current, informative, available, and entertaining (which helps with motivation).

The challenge at this point is getting there.  It is easy to record a lecture and to have it available to future classes.  This is a GREAT first step.  Don't get bogged down by the entire dream.  Automate what we can and what's easy upfront and then build on it.

This topic is a passion of mine.  I wasn't always excited to learn, right around high school, the classroom got very boring to me and it really wasn't until after college and I got into the workforce and discovered some of the breakthroughs in this 21st Century Textbook, that I was reinvigorated.  Finding an outlet for this passion has been (and still is) a challenge, though, no shortage of trying (wikify, apps, this site, excel flash cards, to name a few).  But I enjoy the journey.

Oh yeah...

Admittedly, much of Thrun's emphasis in his talk at USAA was actually geared more towards taking back education from the traditional University institutions.  He questions, as costs of degrees rise and employee satisfaction with the quality and breadth of knowledge a graduate coming into the workforce displays is stagnating, why are the University's still in charge?  Why aren't employers having a larger footprint in the design of their prospective employees education?

Yes there are all sorts of variables and players (and politics) involved in that discussion.  Believe the students will come out on top, though.  It will be very interesting to see what a college education looks like over the next few decades.


1 comment:

  1. You should talk to the CO/XO/Director at the Center for Information Dominance and see if you can influence them in changing the way they educate our Sailors.