Publishing, music, shopping, journalism – all revolutionised by the internet. Next in line? Education. Now US academics are offering world-class tuition – free – to anyone who can log on, anywhere in the world, is this the end of campus life?
Two years ago, I sat in the back seat of a Toyota Prius in a rooftop car park in California and gripped the door handle as the car roared away from the kerb, headed straight towards the roof’s edge and then at the last second sped around a corner without slowing down. There was no one in the driver’s seat.
It was the prototype of Google’s self-driving car and it felt a bit like being Buck Rogers and catapulted into another century. Later, I listened to Sebastian Thrun, a German-born professor of artificial intelligence at Stanford University, explain how he’d built it, how it had already clocked up 200,000 miles driving around California, and how one day he believed it would mean that there would be no traffic accidents.
A few months later, the New York Times revealed that Thrun was the head of Google’s top-secret experimental laboratory Google X, and was developing, among other things, Google Glasses – augmented reality spectacles. And then, a few months after that, I came across Thrun again.
The self-driving car, the glasses, Google X, his prestigious university position – they’d all gone. He’d resigned his tenure from Stanford, and was working just a day a week at Google. He had a new project. Though he didn’t call it a project. “It’s my mission now,” he said. “This is the future. I’m absolutely convinced of it.”
The future that Thrun believes in, that has excited him more than self-driving cars, or sci-fi-style gadgets, is education. Specifically, massive online education free to all. The music industry, publishing, transportation, retail – they’ve all experienced the great technological disruption. Now, says Thrun, it’s education’s turn.