Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free lunch must not have heard about the latest offerings at Stanford’s School of Engineering. This fall, Stanford is going out on a limb and offering three online courses for free – Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI), Introduction to Databases, and Introduction to Machine Learning. The AI course in particular has attracted the interest of thousands of students around the world – more than 120,000, by one approximation – and it hasn’t even started yet.
At first I thought this was no different than what MIT has being doing for years with its OpenCourseWare initiative. But at closer inspection, there are major distinctions. OpenCourseWare is a free publication of MIT course materials, but students don’t register for the courses because they are not credit-bearing in any way. Also, there is no access to MIT faculty. This doesn’t diminish the incredible impact and reach of the 2,000 courses MIT has published over the last decade, but it does put Stanford’s experimental offerings into perspective.
Though the curriculum for Stanford’s artificial intelligence online course will be drawn from the popular on-campus course, it will still function as a “real” online course – with pre-recorded video lectures, homework, quizzes, exams, an online discussion board, and feedback on assignments. The two instructors and leaders in the AI field, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, will be active participants in the general discussion forum and will answer top-voted student questions. (It would be impossible to answer individual questions from thousands of students!)
The 10-week AI online course runs from October 10 to December 18 and is being offered in two tracks, basic and advanced. In the basic track, students will watch the lectures and take basic quizzes, but will not complete the full course requirements. The advanced track is the whole shebang. Tip: If you enroll in the advanced track and find it too challenging, you can always switch back to the basic. Upon successful completion of either track, students will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructors, but no official Stanford certificate or credit. If you’d like, you can watch the lecture videos without enrolling, but you won’t have access to any other features of the course.
Musings on Massively Open Online Courses
Stanford’s artificial intelligence course is the latest entry into the growing marketplace of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC), an exciting experiment in making education accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. It does pose some interesting questions, though. Anyone can participate, but will the average joe be equipped to handle the rigor of a Stanford course? A solid understanding of probability and linear algebra are required, in addition to a commitment of 10-15 hours per week to complete the coursework. In light of that, I’m curious to see how many of the thousands of students enrolled will actually complete the course requirements.
The other concern that comes to mind is that of control – how can you effectively monitor an online course of this size? How will Stanford guard against spammers and trolls who might attempt to ruin the experience for everyone? And is the technology equipped to handle such a large discussion forum as well as the challenges of grading?
Managing a massive course like this is sure to bring some headaches, but hopefully, it will be worthwhile for instructors and motivated students alike. In any event, Stanford should be applauded for this effort to share the educational wealth. And I, for one, look forward to finding out about the outcomes!