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Posted August 17, 2011

Virtual and Artificial, but 58,000 Want Course


PALO ALTO, Calif. — A free online course at Stanford University on artificial intelligence, to be taught this fall by two leading experts from Silicon Valley, has attracted more than 58,000 students around the globe — a class nearly four times the size of Stanford’s entire student body.

Noah Berger for The New York Times

The teachers, from left, Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun.


The course is one of three being offered experimentally by the Stanford computer science department to extend technology knowledge and skills beyond this elite campus to the entire world, the university is announcing on Tuesday.

The online students will not get Stanford grades or credit, but they will be ranked in comparison to the work of other online students and will receive a “statement of accomplishment.”

For the artificial intelligence course, students may need some higher math, like linear algebra and probability theory, but there are no restrictions to online participation. So far, the age range is from high school to retirees, and the course has attracted interest from more than 175 countries.

The instructors are Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, two of the world’s best-known artificial intelligence experts. In 2005 Dr. Thrun led a team of Stanford students and professors in building a robotic car that won a Pentagon-sponsored challenge by driving 132 miles over unpaved roads in a California desert. More recently he has led a secret Google project to develop autonomous vehicles that have driven more than 100,000 miles on California public roads.

Dr. Norvig is a former NASA scientist who is now Google’s director of research and the author of a leading textbook on artificial intelligence.

The computer scientists said they were uncertain about why the A.I. class had drawn such a large audience. Dr. Thrun said he had tried to advertise the course this summer by distributing notices at an academic conference in Spain, but had gotten only 80 registrants.

Then, several weeks ago he e-mailed an announcement to Carol Hamilton, the executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. She forwarded the e-mail widely, and the announcement spread virally.

The two scientists said they had been inspired by the recent work of Salman Khan, an M.I.T.-educated electrical engineer who in 2006 established a nonprofit organization to provide video tutorials to students around the world on a variety of subjects via YouTube.

“The vision is: change the world by bringing education to places that can’t be reached today,” said Dr. Thrun.

The rapid increase in the availability of high-bandwidth Internet service, coupled with a wide array of interactive software, has touched off a new wave of experimentation in education.

For example, the Khan Academy, which focuses on high school and middle school, intentionally turns the relationship of the classroom and homework upside down. Students watch lectures at home, then work on problem sets in class, where the teacher can assist them one on one.

The Stanford scientists said they were focused on going beyond early Internet education efforts, which frequently involved uploading online videos of lectures given by professors and did little to motivate students to do the coursework required to master subjects.

The three online courses, which will employ both streaming Internet video and interactive technologies for quizzes and grading, have in the past been taught to smaller groups of Stanford students in campus lecture halls. Last year, for example, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence drew 177 students.

The two additional courses will be an introductory course on database software, taught by Jennifer Widom, chairwoman of the computer science department, and an introduction to machine learning, taught by Andrew Ng.

Dr. Widom said she had recorded her video lectures during the summer and would use classroom sessions to work with smaller groups of students on projects that might be competitive and to bring in people from the industry to give special lectures. Unlike the A.I. course, this one will compare online students with one another and not with the Stanford students.

How will the artificial intelligence instructors grade 58,000 students? The scientists said they would make extensive use of technology. “We have a system running on the Amazon cloud, so we think it will hold up,” Dr. Norvig said.

In place of office hours, they will use the Google moderator service, software that will allow students to vote on the best questions for the professors to respond to in an online chat and possibly video format. They are considering ways to personalize the exams to minimize cheating. Part of the instructional software was developed by Know Labs, a company Dr. Thrun helped start.

Although the three courses are described as an experiment, the researchers say they expect university classes to be made more widely accessible via the Internet.

“I personally would like to see the equivalent of a Stanford computer science degree on the Web,” Dr. Ng said.

Dr. Widom said that having Stanford courses freely available could both assist and compete with other colleges and universities. A small college might not have the faculty members to offer a particular course, but could supplement its offerings with the Stanford lectures.

There has also been some discussion at Stanford about whether making the courses freely available would prove to be a threat to the university, which charges high fees for tuition. Dr. Thrun dismissed that idea.

“I’m much more interested in bringing Stanford to the world,” he said. “I see the developing world having colossal educational needs.”

Hal Abelson, a computer scientist at M.I.T. who helped develop an earlier generation of educational offerings that began in 2002, said the Stanford course showed how rapidly the online world was evolving.

“The idea that you could put up open content at all was risky 10 years ago, and we decided to be very conservative,” he said. “Now the question is how do you move into something that is more interactive and collaborative, and we will see lots and lots of models over the next four or five years.”

Reprinted from The New York Times, Science, Tuesday, August 16, 2011., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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