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]


About the author

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he wants to build a platform called RadMatter to revolutionize how we develop and demonstrate talent in the 21st century