Opening university doors online

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta keeps a keen eye on the horizon for teaching and learning innovations—and a website with strong links to technology innovator Google recently caught its attention.

U of A dean of science Jonathan Schaeffer likes what he’s seen so far at the open-access online learning site, Udacity.

“Udacity isn’t interested in the quantity of the courses it offers,” says Schaeffer. “They’re interested in the quality.”

Udacity was co-founded by Google executive and legendary innovator Sebastian Thrun. Schaeffer has invited Thrun to the U of A to talk about his creation and the future of MOOCs, massive open online courses.

Thrun has said that open-access learning will democratize education. Thrun has told the story about his first experience with open online learning as a professor at Stanford University. He wanted to reach more students than could possibly fit in his artificial-intelligence class, so he put the course online.

Prospective students of Udacity’s advanced Artificial Intelligence class are welcomed by a smiling Thrun outlining the course content and telling them that after seven weeks they should be able to program their own self-driving car.

Thrun’s audience quickly expanded from 200 Stanford students to 160,000 worldwide.

There are several open online teaching sites now available, providing well over 100 courses, but Schaeffer appreciates that Udacity is taking its time, offering only 14 courses right now.

“When you move into the open-access, online world it’s not just a matter of recording a professor and throwing the video online,” said Schaeffer.

“The future is all in the online world and the U of A needs to move very aggressively if we’re seen to be leading-edge and relevant to the next generation of students,” he said.

With Schaeffer the online future for U of A could arrive next year.

“My target for the Faculty of Science is to have a strong presence in the online world for September 2013.”

Sebastian Thrun at the U of A

On Friday, Sept. 21, Sebastian Thrun will speak at the U of A about his experiences with massive open online courses and discuss some of their advantages and challenges. The event is at 3 p.m. in room 1-440 at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science on the U of A’s North Campus.

The talk will also be webcast live.