Posted by: crudbasher | June 27, 2012

The Most Dangerous Man In Higher Education

Sebastian Thrun is a former Stanford University professor, a current Google researcher and is considered an expert in the field of Artificial Intelligence.

I consider him the most dangerous man in higher education . (At least dangerous to the traditional model of college.)

Hyperbole? Perhaps, but let me lay out a case.

He is the founder of Udacity, which is offering free online college classes to hundreds of thousands of people at once. He has developed a software system which provides some assistance to the students, and they can also help each other. Naturally there are also teachers who help when all else fails and so far it has been very successful.

Even so, none of this is completely revolutionary. There are many companies who are creating online learning platforms and there is a large amount of venture capital being invested in these ideas. So why is he dangerous?

There was a movie a few years back with George Clooney and Nicole Kidman called The Peacemaker. It’s a story about hijacked nuclear weapons and there was this great line by Nicole Kidman’s character.

“I’m not afraid of the man who wants ten nuclear weapons, Colonel. I’m terrified of the man who only wants one.” (source)

This is a question of motivation. A person who wants only one nuke means to use it so is much more dangerous. As I have been talking about lately, the Internet’s biggest effect is to empower creative individuals. I think that resulting effect can be more pronounced depending on your motivations. If you are trying to make money then you are like most other entities online. It puts you on a level playing field and therefore limits your disruptive effect.

If on the other hand you don’t care about the money, it allows you to have a very disruptive effect. Steve Jobs offered to buy Dropbox a few years ago. As he put it, Dropbox was a feature, not a product. Dropbox refused, and so Apple created iCloud. Apple could afford to just give it away because it was part of their much larger business. It was just one feature among many. (see Steve Jobs was right, Dropbox is a feature, not a product)

I was listening to the Bill Bennett radio show this morning and heard an interview with Sebastian Thrun.

Here’s the link – Interview with Sebastian Thrun 

Several times during the interview, Bill Bennett asked Mr. Thrun how he could make money with it. Mr. Thrun kept saying that he was trying to provide a college education to everyone in the world for free. That’s his mission. He’s not trying to make money doing it, he is just solving a problem and he has the tools and creativity to do it. He actually left his teaching position at Stanford because he believes in this so much. This should be causing universities to be having cold sweats. Of course, I keep hearing academics poopooing this idea. They say it won’t be high quality, etc… Listen to the audio at 26:30. They take a phone call from a 53 year old student who has taken one of these massive online classes of Mr. Thrun’s. He said he took it because he wanted to change careers! At age 53!

Universities aren’t catering to these older students. In fact, college is so expensive now, you have to have 30 years of earnings ahead of you in order to pay for it!

This graph I think spells it out.

US Population Graph (modified) H/T The Saeculum

Universities are designed for, and cater to the population in red. What about everyone else? Who will teach them? Sebastian Thrun and other like them will and once they have them, they will come for the traditional students too. This is the nature of disruptive innovation.


  1. […] I have spoken of Elon Musk before. He is the founder of SpaceX (among other companies). Last year they successfully launched the first commercial spacecraft to the Space Station. I blogged quite a bit about how they did it but I realize I missed the why. He doesn’t want to make a space company. He wants to go to Mars. That is his why. For that reason he is doing things that don’t make a lot of sense to somebody who just wants to make money launching rockets. It also makes him disruptive to the rest of the industry because he doesn’t have the same why as they do. Another person like this is Sebastian Thrun (see The Most Dangerous Man In Higher Education) […]

  2. […] year I wrote that Sebastian Thrun is the most dangerous man in Higher Education. He was launching a web site called Udacity. Well, turns out it didn’t achieve the results of […]

  3. […] wrote a post a few years ago about The Most Dangerous Man In Higher Education. In it I talked about how Sebastian Thrun is creating a software system to enable the whole world […]

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