Volume 9 No 2 Summer 2012
 


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The New York Times

March 4, 2012



Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls
by Tamar Lewin

The pitch for the online course sounds like a late-night television ad, or maybe a subway poster: "Learn programming in seven weeks starting Feb. 20. We'll teach you enough about computer science that you can build a Web search engine like Google or Yahoo."

But this course, Building a Search Engine, is taught by two prominent computer scientists, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor and Google fellow, and David Evans, a professor on leave from the University of Virginia.

The big names have been a big draw. Since Udacity, the for-profit startup running the course, opened registration on Jan. 23, more than 90,000 students have enrolled in the search-engine course and another taught by Mr. Thrun, who led the development of Google's self-driving car.

Welcome to the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses - known as MOOCs - a tool for democratizing higher education. While the vast potential of free online courses has excited theoretical interest for decades, in the past few months hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing them as a path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs, without paying tuition or collecting a college degree. And in what some see as a threat to traditional institutions, several of these courses now come with an informal credential (though that, in most cases, will not be free).

Consider Stanford's experience: Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by Mr. Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. An additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos, with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.

Mr. Thrun was enraptured by the scale of the course, and how it spawned its own culture, including a Facebook group, online discussions and an army of volunteer translators who made it available in 44 languages.

"Having done this, I can't teach at Stanford again," he said at a digital conference in Germany in January. "I feel like there's a red pill and a blue pill, 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."

Besides the Artificial Intelligence course, Stanford offered two other MOOCs last semester - Machine Learning (104,000 registered, and 13,000 completed the course), and Introduction to Databases (92,000 registered, 7,000 completed). And this spring, the university will have 13 courses open to the world, including Anatomy, Cryptography, Game Theory and Natural Language Processing.

"We're considering this still completely experimental, and we're trying to figure out the right way to go down this road," said John Etchemendy, the Stanford provost. "Our business is education, and I'm all in favor of supporting anything that can help educate more people around the world. But there are issues to consider, from copyright questions to what it might mean for our accreditation if we provide some official credential for these courses, branded as Stanford."

Mr. Thrun sent the 23,000 students who completed the Artificial Intelligence course a PDF file (suitable for framing) by e-mail showing their percentile score, but not the Stanford name; 248 students, none from Stanford, earned grades of 100 percent.

For many of the early partisans, the professed goal is more about changing the world than about making money. But Udemy, a startup with backing from the founders of Groupon, is hoping that wide use of its site could ultimately generate profits. And Mr. Thrun's new company, Udacity, which is supported by Charles River Ventures, plans to, essentially, monetize its students' skills - and help them get jobs - by getting their permission to sell leads to recruiters.

"We're going to have detailed records on thousands of students who have learned these skills, many of whom will want to make those skills available to employers," said Mr. Evans, the Virginia professor. "So if a recruiter is looking for the hundred best people in some geographic area that know about machine learning, that's something we could provide, for a fee. I think it's the cusp of a revolution."

On Feb. 13, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has been posting course materials online for 10 years, opened registration for its first MOOC, a circuits and electronics course. The course will serve as the prototype for its MITx project, which will eventually offer a wide range of courses and some sort of credential for those who complete them.

The Georgia Institute of Technology is running an experimental two-semester MOOC, known as Change 11, a free-floating forum that exists more in the online postings and response of the students - only two of whom are getting Georgia Tech credit - than in the formal materials assigned by a rotation of professors. Next year, Richard DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities, hopes to put together a MOOSe, or massive open online seminar, through a network of universities that will offer credit.

Udemy recently announced a new Faculty Project, in which award-winning professors from universities like Dartmouth, the University of Virginia and Northwestern offer free online courses. Its co-founder, Gagen Biyani, said the site has more than 100,000 students enrolled in its courses, including several, outside the Faculty Project, that charge fees.

Experts say several factors have helped propel MOOCs to the center of the education stage, including improved technology and the exploding costs of traditional universities. "We also now have the example of for-profit colleges that have shown that it's perfectly possible to go to scale online," said Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, an independent policy institute.

Five years ago, George Siemens started a MOOC on what was happening in open education, hoping to do for teaching what M.I.T.'s OpenCourseWare had done for content: it attracted 2,300 participants, with a syllabus translated into several languages. Mr. Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University, a publicly-supported online Canadian institution, said it was quickly apparent that the format created distinctive social networks, as students carried on wide-ranging discussions on their own.

"A lot of the relationships formed through that first course are still continuing today," said Mr. Siemens, who is also a facilitator of Georgia Tech's program. "What we found was that in a MOOC, instead of the classroom being the center, it becomes just one node of the network of social interactions."

The current, more technically focused MOOCs are highly automated, with computer-graded assignment and exams. But there is still plenty of room for social interaction. The Stanford MOOCs, for example, included virtual office hours and online discussion forums where students could ask and answer questions - and vote on which were important enough to filter up the professor.

"In a classroom, when you ask a question, one student answers and the others don't get a chance," Mr. Thrun said. "Online, with embedded quizzes, everyone has to try to answer the questions. And if they don't understand, they can go back and listen over and over until they do." Just as a child who falls while learning to ride a bike is not told "You get a D," but is encouraged to keep trying, he said, online classes, where students can work at their own pace, can help students keep practicing until they master the content.

"The goal should be to get everybody to A+ level," he said. Several students in Mr. Thrun's class last semester, contacted by e-mail, said the MOOC worked for them.

Balakrishnan Srinivasan, 45, a computer engineer in Bangalore, said he frequently replayed the videos, which made him "feel as if I had a personal tutor." He earned a 94.8 in Artificial Intelligence and has signed up for both Udacity courses.

Brian Guan, 44, a Malaysian-born software engineer who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., offered his own utopian vision in an e-mail interview: "I wish that the always-available, always-replayable and free nature of this style of learning can help to elevate education/knowledge for all of human kind."


 

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