Dirks, Udacity co-founder discuss online education at forum

Karin Goh/Staff

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SAN FRANCISCO — Chancellor Nicholas Dirks stressed the importance of traditional learning in the face of an online education movement at a forum Thursday night.

Dirks and Sebastian Thrun, CEO and co-founder of the online course company Udacity, discussed at a World Affairs Council event how online education could coexist with the residential university model. Much of the forum’s debate revolved around the purpose of education and if technology could better serve modern vocational and educational needs.

“The issue is whether or not or to what extent online education will replace the residential learning experience,” Dirks said. “So far, from what we’ve observed, most students would rather have that traditional learning experience.”

He cited the annual rise in applications to UC Berkeley as an indicator that traditional education models are still valued. Thrun disagreed, however, saying the increasing cost of higher education will eventually slow growth in applications.

Thrun, a researcher at Stanford University who developed Google Glass and Google’s driverless car, founded Udacity in 2011 to offer nontraditional students technical certifications through massive open online courses. He described the modern education system as the most antiquated field in the 21st century other than the church.

“It essentially hasn’t changed for centuries, and everything else has with the explosion of technology,” he said. “When we were agricultural, it made sense to come to campus … but I think the university of the future should serve me for a lifetime and with technology that is possible.”

Thrun referenced performance differences between live-lecture students and online viewers of a class he taught at Stanford. Exam results were on average, he said, a whole letter grade higher for the online students.

Dirks responded by saying this was only true of students who “already knew how to learn.”

“There are clearly very clever, talented students who have the wherewithal to learn on their own and be successful without a residential college experience,” he said, adding that he hopes to continue seeing an “interplay between online and traditional” platforms.

In the forum, Dirks cited UC Berkeley Extension, which has an online learning program, as one of the campus’s main initiatives in increasing the reach and accessibility of campus resources.

The extension program offers certificates but not full degrees in fields from advanced biosciences to paralegal studies. Online program coordinator Lynnette Torres said there’s no application process for the programs in an intentional effort to allow anyone to participate.

“It’s especially advantageous for people trying to change careers,” she said. “They can work full time, spend time with their kids and log in at their convenience.”

By her estimate, at least 30 percent of those enrolled are from outside the United States. The majority of other students, according to Torres, are logging in from outside California.

Online education has increasingly garnered interest and scrutiny in recent years, markedly after the University of California received $10 million in state funding last year, which it used toward the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a strong supporter of online instruction over the years, pressured the university to re-examine the structure of online courses, which often mix recorded lectures and online texts with face-to-face interaction through live video office hours.

“I believe education empowers people,” Thrun said. “We have amazing resources in this country and amazing paths for young people. If we use technology to share this with the world, the world will be a massively better place.”

Ultimately, Dirks said, UC Berkeley’s commitment to online education is about more than the technology itself.

“What we’ve discovered at Berkeley is that we can use the work that’s being done online to see how students learn,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity to develop new ways to deliver the kinds of education that students need.”

Contact Arielle Swedback at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @aswedback.