About a mile from the main quad at Stanford University, one of the nation's bastions of exclusive and expensive higher education, a street-level office building across the street from an Olive Garden houses the makings of an up-and-coming contender.
In this version of education, learning will be free and available to anyone who wants it while operating like a whimsical playground: No one is late for class, failure is not an option, and a lesson looks something like Angry Birds, the physics-based puzzle game that has been downloaded more than 1 billion times.
"You want learning to be as much fun as it is to play a video game," says Sebastian Thrun, a Google vice president and Stanford research professor best known for his role in building Google's driverless car.
Thrun, 45, is seated in a cramped, soundproof studio at Udacity, the education company he founded in January after teaching a free online artificial-intelligence course that drew more than 160,000 students. So profound was the experience that he announced he could no longer teach in a traditional Stanford classroom.
"I feel like there's a red pill and a blue pill," he famously told an audience in January at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Munich. "And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I've taken the red pill, and I've seen Wonderland."
Now, Udacity is one of a rush of online start-ups he oversees. The vision across these ventures: Develop a catalog of free online courses taught by star professors from around the world.
In this windowless room, producers create cool special effects, and video cameras capture tight shots of an instructor's hand as it writes diagrams and figures on a white board. In the next room, a dozen or so of Thrun's staff of twentysomethings are...
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