Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Scaling higher education

In the fall of last year, over 100,000 students signed up for Andrew Ng's Machine Learning Class and more than 12,000 of them completed the course. Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig taught Artificial Intelligence with similarly impressive numbers.

I was one of the thousands in the Machine Learning class. I had so much fun with that, I also took Daphne Koller's Probabilistic Graphical Models. That one was a quite a bit harder, covering some fairly advanced stuff at least for my few remaining brain cells. But, I finished! For the PGM class, 6702 took the first quiz and 1441 took the final - pretty good retention for such a ball-buster of a class.

This spring, at least two new companies offering online courses were founded. Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller founded Coursera. Partnering with professors from Princeton, Penn, University of Michigan, and Berkeley, they've broadened their course catalog from a base in computer science to include classes in history, mathematics and even poetry. Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, calls his approach University 2.0 and speaks of "democratizing higher eduction" and "empowering students" especially in the developing world where access to higher education is more limited. Almost three quarters of Coursera's students are outside the US, in countries like Brazil, Britain, India and Russia.

The classes are surprisingly fun. The formula boils down to two key elements:

  • short segments
  • interaction

In the mold of Khan academy, the lectures are broken into short segments of 10 to 15 minutes, which fit nicely into busy schedules. Short quizzes test the student's understanding. The courses have social aspect, as well. Online forums provide a place for questions and a sense of camaraderie while struggling through difficult concepts. Meetups and study groups have sprung up in several cities across the world.

The programming exercises are where the real fun begins. Students write code that implements the crux of an operation, filling in the blanks in provided boilerplate code. Grading works a bit like unit testing. Progressing through the assignment by getting tests to pass gives gratifyingly immediate feedback. Completing an assignment results in working code for handwriting recognition, spam classification, image processing or recognizing an action from kinect position sensing data.

Thomas Friedman says, Let the revolution come:

Welcome to the college education revolution. Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.

With the cost of tuition rising, and public funding falling, the timing might be right for some disruptive innovation in higher education. And, the skills on offer are in high demand. One proposed business model is to offer classes for free and charge employers for access to the data.

Refactoring the university classroom to function at internet scale meshes with the building momentum behind open access journals that some are calling an Academic Spring as well as with citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo.

Increasing openness in academics, in both teaching and research, can only reduce friction in the process of transferring technology from the lab to production and may help engage the public with science. Look for lots of interesting developments in the next few years, as technology knocks a new door into the ivory tower.

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Updates

Coursera continues to generate lots of news, signing up 12 new universities, including the University of Washington (yay, UW!), attracting the attention of Bill Gate, and being described as The Single Most Important Experiment in Higher Education by the Atlantic and The Beginning of the End for Traditional Higher Education by Fortune and Reshaping Education on the Web by the NYT.