Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever

Steven Leckart / March 20, 2012

...  [I]’m enrolled in CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, a graduate- level course taught by Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig.

Last fall, the university in the heart of Silicon Valley did something it had never done before: It opened up three classes, including CS221, to anyone with a web connection. Lectures and assignments—the same ones administered in the regular on-campus class—would be posted and auto-graded online each week. Midterms and finals would have strict deadlines. [snip].

People around the world have gone crazy for this opportunity. Fully two-thirds of my 160,000 classmates live outside the US. There are students in 190 countries—from India and South Korea to New Zealand and the Republic of Azerbaijan. [snip].


Sebastian Thrun stepped onstage at the March 2011 TED conference in Long Beach, California. In a ballroom filled with 1,000 heavyweight thinkers, the roboticist and AI guru offered a peek at his latest project at Google: a charcoal-gray Toyota Prius outfitted with a laser range finder, radar, and cameras. [snip].

You’d think that would have been Thrun’s favorite moment at TED. But it wasn’t. Salman Khan also made a presentation that week. The founder of Khan Academy, which Wired profiled last August, told the story of his nearly six-year-old website, which provides more than 2,800 tutorial videos in subjects like science, math, and economics. Khan capped off his talk by emphasizing how he’s growing a “global one-world classroom.” Joining him onstage, Bill Gates called Khan Academy “the future of education.” [snip].


After seeing Khan at TED, Thrun dusted off a PowerPoint presentation he’d put together in 2007. Back then he had begun envisioning a YouTube for education, a for-profit startup that would allow students to discover and take courses from top professors. In a few slides, he’d spelled out the nine essential components of a university education: admissions, lectures, peer interaction, professor interaction, problem-solving, assignments, exams, deadlines, and certification. [snip].

Thrun knew firsthand what it was like to crave superior instruction. When he was a master’s-degree student at the University of Bonn in Germany in the late 1980s, he found his AI professors to be clueless. He spent a lot of time filling in the gaps at the library, but he longed for a more direct connection to experts. [snip].

In June he took the next step: cofounding KnowLabs, which he funded with $300,000 of his own money. He pulled in David Stavens, one of Stanley’s cocreators, as CEO; he tapped Stanford robotics researcher Mike Sokolsky to be CTO. They converted Thrun’s guesthouse into a temporary office. Thus ensconced on a scenic hillside on Page Mill Road near Stanford’s campus, the team began planning. They had eight weeks before the fall term started—not unreasonable given the modest scope of the project. Stavens thought they’d get 500 students. Sokolsky hoped for 1,000. Norvig figured they might hit 2,000.

In late July, Thrun emailed 1,000 members of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, a group that had weathered the AI winter of the 1980s and ’90s only to see the field later revitalized by the likes of Stanley. By the next morning 5,000 students had signed up. A few days later the class had 10,000. That’s when the Stanford administration called. Thrun had neglected to tell them about his plan—he’d had a hunch it might not go over well. The university’s chief complaint: You cannot issue an official certificate of any kind. Over the next few weeks, 15 meetings were held on the matter. Thrun talked to the dean’s office, the registrar, and the university’s legal department. Meanwhile, enrollment in CS221 was ballooning: 14,000, 18,000, and—just two weeks later—58,000.

In all those meetings, not one person objected to Thrun’s offering his class online for free. They admired his vision. The administration simply wanted Thrun to drop the assignments and certificate. He refused. Those two components, he argued, were responsible for driving the sign-ups. Someone proposed removing Stanford’s name from the course website altogether. Eventually they reached a compromise: (1) Offer a Statement of Accomplishment, not a certificate, and (2) include a disclaimer stating that the class wouldn’t count toward Stanford credit, a grade, or a degree.

Thrun didn’t have time to celebrate. By mid-August, word of his AI class went viral after a write-up in The New York Times. Enrollment skyrocketed past 100,000. KnowLabs’ website had been built to handle 10,000 students. Class was starting in a matter of weeks. “That,” Sokolsky says, “is when I stopped sleeping.”


Thrun is thrilled. His experiment is working. More than 20,000 students have taken the midterm and are turning in weekly assignments. The website’s stability is improving. CS221's YouTube videos have been viewed 5 million times. The team at KnowLabs has automated and ramped up the workflow: film, edit, double-check the lessons, post, and monitor the message boards to put out fires.

The course is hitting eight of Thrun’s nine educational components. Sure there’s room for improvement. But what they’re building is starting to look less like a whimsical one-off and more like a legitimate venture. [snip].


KnowLabs already has competition: At the same time as CS221, two other computer science courses are being taught at Stanford using another digital platform. [snip]. Two Stanford professors then develop that platform into Coursera, an independent venture for serving online courses. [snip] The plan is to offer 14 classes in 2012, including cryptography, anatomy, and game theory. For now, these are all free. Then MIT announces it is racing to catch up with Stanford by creating a program called MITx, which will serve up a handful of online courses in the fall of 2012. Enrollment and participation will be free, but to earn a certificate of completion students will have to pay a “fairly modest” but yet-to-be-determined fee.

Thrun isn’t worried that these respected universities or faculty will crush his startup. He’s envisioning his own digital university, with a less conventional curriculum, one based on solving problems, not simply lectures on abstract topics. It would offer a viable alternative for students of the global one-world classroom—particularly those who lack the resources to move to the US and attend college.

Thrun decides that KnowLabs will build something called Udacity. The name, a mashup of audacity and university, is intended to convey the boldness of both Thrun’s and his students’ ambitions. His goal is for Udacity to offer free eight-week online courses. For the next six months or more, the curriculum will focus on computer science. Eventually it will expand into other quantitative disciplines including engineering, physics, and chemistry. The idea is to create a menu of high-quality courses that can be rerun and improved with minimal involvement from the original instructor. KnowLabs will work only with top professors who are willing to put in the effort to create dynamic, interactive videos. Just as Hollywood cinematography revolutionized the way we tell stories, [snip].

He’s thinking big now. He imagines that in 10 years, job applicants will tout their Udacity degrees. In 50 years, he says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them. Thrun just has to plot the right course.

It’s a crisp and sunny December morning at Stanford—the last day of class—and Thrun steps up to a podium to deliver the in-class lecture. I’d pictured crashing a hall packed with techies, but only 41 students out of 200 show up. Four stroll in late. Two fall asleep. Five leave early. That’s not uncommon. There’s little incentive to come to class. During the fall term, the Stanford students taking CS221 preferred watching the KnowLabs videos. Thrun says this improved their performance. In previous years his students averaged 60 percent on the midterm; this time around they did much better. [snip])

He doesn’t congratulate himself for long. Along with the technical hurdles, including scaling up the website and staving off at least three denial-of-service attacks, Thrun acknowledges some harsh feedback from his students.[snip]


Online, of course, that wasn’t an issue. A dozen or more discussion groups formed on Facebook, and students organized virtual study sessions via Google+ and private IRC channels. I posed questions on the Q&A site Aiqus and on Reddit discussion boards at all hours of the day and night and received explanations and tips from around the world in near real time. On Aiqus alone, more than 4,000 questions were posted, and they received more than 13,000 answers. [snip].


An hour before that last lecture, I stop by Thrun’s office to say hello. “We have a recipe that works,” he tells me proudly. “Putting these ingredients together and working really hard to create good content and a good experience for the students, we can break through.”


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