Professors Without Borders

17 July 2012

My favorite article about Udacity so far is Professors without Borders, Prospect Magazine, 28 June 2012.

Not long ago, on a rainy Saturday morning, Professor Dave Evans and I hung out in bed while he tried to explain recursive functions (for the fourth time) and I worked on my homework. Or rather, I hung out in bed, and Evans, a computer science professor at the University of Virginia, hung out on my laptop screen, where I could—click—pause him midsentence and pour myself another cup of coffee.

“Computer Science 101: Building a Search Engine” was one of Udacity’s first offerings, and for seven weeks this spring, Evans was teaching me and 30,000 others to write enough Python—a basic programming language—to create a mini Google. We started with basics, including the difference between a computer and a toaster, and “bits” versus “bytes.” Then we went back in time for a little nerd history, from Augusta Ada King, Lord Byron’s daughter and the world’s first “programmer,” to PageRank, the search algorithm that powers Google.

Evans is the kind of nerdy savant whose gap-tooth smile and Monty Python humour attract a cult following on campus. (As an academic, he’s also a world-class cryptographer.) Thrun and Stavens found him in November 2011, flew him to Palo Alto in December, and by January he was crammed in a makeshift recording studio—still in Thrun’s guesthouse—rejigging his standard university curriculum into a Udacity one.