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Like Peter Thiel's Fellows, Sebastian Thrun Dropped Out, Hacked Education, Too

What the former Stanford professor-turned-independent educator teaches us about the new online power dynamic.

Wars have been fought in pursuit of it. Humans have been killed in its name. We have struggled because of it. It has been the object of our desires for millennia. And today, thanks to the Internet, we have more of more of it, particularly with regard to education.

It is power. Not so long ago, if you wanted to learn something, you had to find an expert. These experts resided in universities, and were often off limits if one wasn't a matriculated student.

Then in 1999, MIT announced they were putting their course online. In the last 12 years many other institutions have followed suit. Then came the Khan Academy, ALISON, and others. Today knowledge is freely accessible to anyone.

Last fall, Stanford made the bold announcement that two of their courses would be taught online—artificial intelligence and machine learning classes. No one expected hundreds of thousands of people to sign up for the courses.

But they did, and by anyone's measure, the courses were a wild success. Two weeks ago, Sebastian Thrun, one of the professors who taught the online courses, dropped a bombshell: He has left Stanford to start teach courses independently.

It's a big deal for a professor to dump a university. But dump Stanford Sebastian did. He dumped Stanford because he realized that he—as an individual—holds the power, not Stanford as an institution.

We probably won't see a wave of professors quitting universities quite yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see more experts forge their own paths soon. No longer do experts need tenure to teach students—anyone can setup their webcam, and Moodle installation, and find students on the Internet.

While I certainly don't think that teaching courses on the Internet is the panacea that will cure all educational ills, seeing professors forge their own path is an inspiring first step. Because once professors start hacking their education, as Thrun has, it'll be easier for students to do the same.

As students, we won't have to rely upon the ancient structure of the ivory tower. We'll have the power to choose how, where, and when we want to learn. Nothing but our thirst for knowledge will be able to stop us.

In his talk at DLD in Munich (below), Sebastian noted that the number of students who attended the physical class declined sharply once the course was fully online. Listening to his talk, I wondered, how did the Stanford students perform compared to the online students?

After his talk, I asked him. "No comment" was the response.

It seems even Stanford, the most innovative university in the world, is afraid of the power of its own professors.

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he leads Perigee/Penguin will publish his first book about hacking your education in early 2013.

[Editor's note: Dale Stephens is one of the inaugural Thiel Fellows who stopped going to college in exchange for a place in an innovative mentoring program. Read more from Dale—and about PayPal founder Peter Thiel's education experiment—here.]

[Image: Stanford]

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  • PeterCao

    Google’s era under Eric Schmidt had involved into multiple crimes in Stanford which is fascism bynature.

    Google’s Eric Schmidt had abused google resources to financially and politicially support a criminal suspect named Gabriele Scheler, along with a Stanford Computer Science faculty Sebastian Thrun, against ruling from Stanford and police authorities. During their fight with Stanford, Eric Schmidt’s side had murdered an innocent Stanford student May Zhou in 2007 to threaten me and to terrorize Stanford. When they found I would not compromise a bit but actively tried to clarify the case, Eric Schmidt’s side did plot a murder on me as well. The only reason they didn’t make it a reality is becaue they were closely watched by police and they are afraid of leaving evidence (not becasuse they have any mercy on me as a human being, fascism by nature.) Eric Schmidt lost his CEO position because of his involvment into these crimes.

    These accusations stand still which Eric Schmidt and Sebastian Thrun dare never deny to the public. Eric Schmidt and Sebastian Thrun had not paid for their crimes

  • PeterCao

    This is actually a war between fascism and anti-fascism. At this stage, fascism still prevail in our lives. Eric Schmidt and Sebastian Thrun are just two forefront people we can see in this fascism circle. There are whole pack of fascists behind them.

    Anyway, Eric Schmidt and Sebastian Thrun’s names are not clear in Stanford Student May Zhou’s death, as well as their conspiracies on my life at later time, and neither Eric Schmidt nor Sebastian Thrun dare publicly deny his involvment into such crimes. But without clarification of this case, the criminal suspect side had committed more and more retaliatory crimes on victims. Can anyone deny this fact?

  • PeterCao

    For Sebastian Thrun’s side, you don't want to threaten another person's life with the death of student from your own school. You don't want to terrorize your school boss with the killing of student from your own school. That's absolutely unforgivable. You never feel regret of what your side had done, and that make it even more unforgivable of you.