Archive for December 16, 2011

Teaching the On-Line Stanford class at UMass Lowell: Guest Post from Fred Martin

160,000 Enroll Stanford’s Online AI Course—Is the University Obsolete?

@aiclass: “Amazing we can probably offer a Master’s degree of Stanford quality for FREE. HOW COOL IS THAT?”—September 23, 2011

Mark blogged about Stanford’s online Artificial Intelligence course in August. I’ve been leading a group of UMass Lowell students, who are following the course and will receive regular course credit under my supervision.

Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig’s online course, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, was announced via email to a AAAI list early last summer. The idea went viral. Articles were published in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and many media outlets.

The course was advertised as equivalent to the Stanford University undergraduate AI course. As Thrun posted on Twitter:

@aiclass: “Advanced students will complete the same homeworks and exams as Stanford students. So the courses will be equal in rigor.”—September 28, 2011

The course launched the first week of October. 160,000 students had signed up.

At UMass Lowell

I had taught my department’s AI course in Fall 2010. Students started asking me if they could take the Stanford course as a directed study. In August, I decided to open two full course sections (grad and undergrad, meeting jointly). I wanted to experience this first-hand.

I told students they would be responsible for a final project on top of the Stanford requirements.

I ended up with 16 students—12 grad and 4 undergrad. We meet once weekly for 75-minutes, seminar-style, and talk about the Stanford material after each week’s assignment is already due.

How It Works

The Stanford course consists of weekly lectures—two or three 45-minute topics that are broken up into 15 or 20 short videos. Many of the individual videos have embedded questions (multiple-choice or fill-in-the-value). Thrun’s colleague at the Stanford AI Lab, Prof. Daphne Koller, is a pioneer of this approach, and discussed it in a recent NYT essay.

At the end of these mini-lessons, the video image transforms web form where you fill in the answers. You’ve already logged into the class server, and it grades you immediately. After you submit, you are presented with a link for an explanation video.

The lectures themselves are inspired by Khan Academy’s approach. Occasionally, Thrun and Norvig will train the camera at themselves, but the core content is with the camera on a piece of paper, with Thrun or Norvig talking and writing in real time. Some people don’t like this format, but I find it relaxing and engaging. I like seeing equations written out with verbal narration in perfect sync.

There are weekly problem set “homeworks” with the same format. The homeworks track the lecture material very closely. If you paid attention and did the problems embedded in the lectures, the problem sets are usually easy.

There has been a midterm with the same format as the homeworks. It had 15 questions. There will be a final, and I expect the same format.

The homeworks, midterm, and final have hard deadlines and are only viewable to pre-registered, logged-in students who chose the “Advanced” track. The lectures are openly viewable by anyone. The server backend keeps track your scores on the homeworks, midterm, and final, which will count to your “grade”—a ranking within the active student cohort. There is a “Basic” track which consists only of the lectures.

Of the 160,000 people who initially registered, it was reported in early December that 34,000 students from the Advanced cohort are still actively participating.

On the Course

Thrun and Norvig are great teachers. Thrun is always visibly excited about teaching the material. Norvig is not as effusive, but you still know he really cares about the ideas. They’ve thought through excellent ways of explaining the ideas and quizzing the in-lecture comprehension checks. They often bring fun props or show research projects in the videos recordings.

Thrun and Norvig are only a week or so ahead of the course delivery, and they’re paying close attention their students’ progress. There is a lot of activity on the web forums. Students are completing assignments.

Thrun and Norvig have recorded several “office hours,” where students submit questions and vote on their favorite ones, and then they pick questions and answer them on camera.

In this way, the course is like a usual class—it’s not “canned.” Thrun’s and Norvig’s enthusiasm is infectious.

This is the old-fashioned emotional connection between teachers and their students.

These things make it seem more like a conventional course than you would expect.

My Role as a Teacher

I don’t have to lecture the material. When we meet, my students have (largely) worked through the lectures and homeworks.

So I don’t have to explain things to students for the first time. Instead, we use in-class time to have an interesting conversation about the parts of the material that people found confusing or disagreed upon. We’ve had some great arguments this semester.

This is a lot like the approach suggested in 2006 by Day and Foley in their HCI course at Georgia Tech. They recorded web lectures, and then used classroom time for hands-on learning activities.

Koller calls this “the flipped classroom.” She reports higher-than-usual attendance in her Stanford courses that are taught this way: “We can focus precious classroom time on more interactive problem-solving activities that achieve deeper understanding—and foster creativity.”

One fun thing for me is that Thrun and Norvig are really in charge, and I get to dig into a role as a learning coach. If something is confusing, I get to really be on the side of my students in helping figure it out. I personally really enjoy this. Others might not.

Overall—this is an exciting experiment. Thrun and Norvig have created a fantastic set of interactive lectures and some good quiz problems. They’ve put in a lot of work, and it shows.

What Does It Mean?

I don’t think this threatens the university in any profound way.

Thrun and Norvig are renowned scientists, and charismatic and thoughtful teachers. But if in some future semester, they, or others comparable, are not participating in real time, I wonder how many the 34,000 remaining students would be carrying forward with the determination that they now are.

Furthermore, in order to learn how to “do AI”—and not just learn “about AI”—students need to do significant implementation and research projects. They need individual, time-intensive guidance from a faculty member who can encourage them and help them sharpen their focus.

In Koller’s essay, she extols the new, deeper value of in-class time.

So, the flipped classroom doesn’t put us out of business. It makes us more valuable—but only if we take advantage of the opportunity.

December 16, 2011 at 6:58 am 13 comments


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