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Stanford Schooling – Gratis!

Stanford University's experiment with online classes could help transform computer science education.
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Stanford professor Daphne Koller
Stanford computer science Professor Daphne Koller opened her online class on probabilistic graphical models, previously available only within Stanford, to the public in January.

Last October, for the very first time, Stanford University made available online—and at no charge—three of its most popular computer science courses, classes that normally require admission to the extremely selective and expensive university.

More than 300,000 students registered for Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, Introduction to Databases, and Machine Learning, and participated in an experiment that could help transform the way online education is delivered.

“Never before has a premier institution offered a real class experience to the general public, one with meaningful interaction and real assessments,” says Daphne Koller, a CS professor at Stanford’s AI laboratory. “These courses are a much more meaningful and active experience than the static online course materials that have previously been available to students.”

While metrics are not available for the three courses, an online Stanford report shows that of the 91,734 students who registered for Introduction to Databases—taught by chair Jennifer Widom—25,859 turned in some homework, and 6,513 received “statements of accomplishment.”

No class credits are given to the graduates. Instead, students received a “statement of accomplishment” provided by the instructor, not the university.

Greg Linden, a research associate at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, enrolled in the Machine Learning class taught by Associate Professor Andrew Ng.

His assessment?

“The course seemed a bit light,” says Linden. “It could have had more depth, more time commitment, more material, and harder programming assignments…. That being said, it was a great start for many and a very well done class, probably my favorite machine learning class I’ve ever taken. I have to say—even though I should know this material having worked in the field for some time—I learned several new things in the class.”

Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, taught the AI class with Sebastian Thrun, a Google Fellow and a Stanford CS professor, having taught only traditional classes in the past. “I think we learned a new set of idioms for interacting with students in a way that is simultaneously impersonal, because the student can’t ask questions that will alter what we present, and highly personal, because we present the material in the same way we would in sitting down and doing one-on-one tutoring,” he says.

Norvig believes the online format demonstrated three things: Many people are hungry for high-quality CS education; students can learn by watching videos, answering frequent quizzes, and doing associated homework; and students can get the advantage of peer-to-peer interaction through the online discussion forums.

“This doesn’t mean traditional college courses will go away,” Norvig says, “but it does mean a large percentage of the educational objectives can be met for a price that’s about the same as a traditional course, but reaches 100 times more students.”

Koller has been teaching her class on probabilistic graphical models online for two years, but only within Stanford. In January, she opened the online class to the public using her pioneering pedagogical model of short video modules, simple quizzes embedded in the video, significant amounts of interactive assessments with immediate feedback, and a question-and-answer forum in which students interact with each other and course staff.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced MITx, a new, open-source online learning platform it is currently developing. According to an MIT spokesperson, MITx will offer MIT courses presented specifically for online learning, and students who demonstrate mastery of a given course’s material can obtain certificate-based credentials at a low cost. The first MITx courses will be offered this spring.

“It appears MIT saw the benefits in our approach and decided to move in that direction,” says Koller. “Given our success, I believe more and more classes will be made available in this format. Thus, I think this online format can give rise to a significant change in higher education.”

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UF1 Figure. Stanford CS professor Daphne Koller.

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