People often go back to school during a recession. But what about when schools are closed? Many of those who have lost their jobs or are sheltering at home due to the global coronavirus pandemic are seeking out education online, and Sebastian Thrun expects this trend to continue long after the worst of Covid-19 has subsided. Known as the optimistic engineer who created Google’s self-driving car project, in recent years Thrun has become an advocate for online learning as co-founder and executive chairman of education platform Udacity. At a time when many industries are struggling to cope with lost business, Udacity and its peers are doing well. In just one week in March, Thrun’s company, which offers courses for adults in AI, data science, and business, signed up more students than it had in the second half of 2019.
On Monday, WIRED’s editor in chief, Nicholas Thompson, sat down for a chat with Thrun over Facebook Live. They spoke about why it can be difficult to innovate in schools and how online learning is capable of filling many of the voids created by this pandemic. In the past, Thrun says, school districts and university professors alike had been risk-averse. But he’s convinced that the move to online learning forced by coronavirus will help naysayers realize that going digital could make it easier for some to learn. Adult education, Udacity’s focus, seems like a good place to start: “What companies are beginning to realize in this digital revolution is that their own people are an amazing resource. The coronavirus situation, as sad as it is, has really helped that understanding because now lots of employees are sitting at home.”
Still, Thrun freely admits that online education won’t—and shouldn’t—render in-person learning obsolete. While programs like Udacity excel at teaching hard skills, social skills like empathy are harder to learn through a screen. “Computers can help,” he says, but “having people on your side will always be an advantage.”
Hundreds of readers watched and submitted questions for Thompson and Thrun to answer live, and this was the second in a series of four conversations presented by Salesforce in which WIRED will explore what the coronavirus pandemic means for the future of business, education, technology, and health.
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