August 27, 2012
It was a just about a year ago that a handful of Stanford professors began hatching a revolution in college education.
Sebastian Thrun, more widely known as the head of the team behind Google’s driverless car, decided that he and colleague Peter Norvig would start making their popular course in artificial intelligence available online. Free of charge. To anyone in the world. About 160,000 people signed up.
A few weeks later, another Google researcher/Stanford computer scientist, Andrew Ng, followed suit, offering his equally popular course, “Machine Learning” for free. More than 100,000 people watched his lectures online. As Ng pointed out, it would have taken him 250 years to reach that many students in a conventional Stanford classroom.
The problem, of course, is that Stanford charges students in those conventional classrooms about $40,000 a year. Freebies were not a good business strategy.
By January, Thrun had lined up venture capital money and left Stanford to start Udacity, an independent, online-only education service focusing on science and technology courses. Within a few months, Ng and another Stanford computer scientist, Daphne Koller, had rounded up their own boatload of VC money–a reported $16 million to start with-and went on leave from Stanford to start their own online college operation called Coursera.
Less talk, more questions
But Ng and Koller actually have ratcheted things up another notch. Instead of just distributing its own online courses, Coursera has formed partnerships with some of America’s top universities to help them convert courses for free Internet access. Last month, the startup announced that in addition to its four original partners,–Stanford, Princeton, Penn and Michigan–it has added 12 more, ranging from Duke and Johns Hopkins to the University of Toronto and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
So what does that mean? For starters, Coursera is spreading what’s becoming the new model for online teaching. No more videos of professors talking non-stop for an hour. Instead, lectures are chopped into much smaller chunks, say 10 minutes long, with students asked a quiz question every few minutes. They need to answer correctly before they can move on with the video.
And having tens of thousands of people taking the course at the same time makes it much easier than you would expect for students working on their own to find and study with like-minded classmates. Ng says that, on average, it takes only 22 minutes for someone to get a question answered in Coursera’s online forums.
The huge size of Internet classes–they’re now known as massive open online courses or MOOCs–also allows for much more comprehensive analysis of how subjects are taught and whether they’re understood. Since the online behavior of students is tracked–where they rewind videos, how they respond to quiz questions, etc.–professors can see where a large number of students may have struggled or given the same wrong answer and then make adjustments. Course material now not only has to be interactive, but also more dynamic. Immutable lectures, delivered as if chiseled on stone tablets, are going the way of chalkboards and elbow patches.
Professors also will be teaching classes far more culturally diverse than any they’ve previously experienced. When Coursera announced a few week ago that its enrollment had topped one million in just four months, it also noted that the students who’ve signed up for courses live in 196 different countries. Six out of 10 are outside the U.S.
Can this make money?
Is this really where college is headed? It says something that last spring Harvard and MIT launched their own their MOOC partnership called edX, and that over the summer, the University of California at Berkeley joined it. Even if top-line universities aren’t sure what they’ll gain by offering free courses to the world, they don’t want to risk being left behind if this is a template of the future.
Clearly, there remain some very large unanswered questions, starting with how do any of these partnerships make money. One notion is to charge a relatively small fee, say $50, for a student to receive a certified copy of a letter saying he or she has completed a course. In other words, it wouldn’t cost anything to take a class, but you’d have to pay for proof that you finished it.
Another idea Sebastian Thrun has floated is to have MOOCs serve as a new kind of placement service, using what they glean about students to help companies find employees with very specific skills. But, as recruiters from Intel and Dell told Bloomberg Business Week recently, a certificate for an online course may help someone land a job, but only if they already have a conventional, sit-in-a-classroom four-year degree. Only a very few colleges, including the University of Washington and the University of Helsinki, have agreed to give credit to students who complete MOOC courses.
What about cheating?
No question that plenty of skeptics are dubious about the depth and quality of an online education, who feel the sheer size of the classes precludes any level of one-on-one learning and also invites cheating.
So far only about 25 percent of the people who have enrolled in Coursera courses have actually completed them. And earlier this month The Chronicle of Higher Education reported “dozens” of complaints about plagiarism in essays written for some of the humanities courses Coursera is now offering. (Almost all of the free online courses to date have been in science or technology.)
The accusations actually came from other students, who, in the Coursera system, grade and comment on each other’s essays. In response to the complaints, Coursera reminded students of the honor code they signed when they enrolled. It also is considering using software that can detect plagiarism.
Some professors in the program have suggested that cultural differences could, at least in part, explain why someone would lift whole sections of text from Wikipedia for a course for which they’re not receiving any credit. Eric Rabkin, a University of Michigan English professor who teaches a Coursera class, told the Chronicle that one student who admitted plagiarizing content said he didn’t realize copying and pasting text from another site was inappropriate.
Coursera’s Daphne Koller would point out that this comes with making top college courses available in places where a year ago it would have been inconceivable. She put it this way recently: “This could enable a wave of innovation because amazing talents can be found anywhere. Maybe the next Albert Einstein, or the next Steve Jobs, is living in a remote village in Africa.”
Here are a few other ways technology is changing education:
- Pack light: Another well-financed online initiative called The Minerva Project will be added to the mix by 2014. Its goal is to be the first elite global university. From sophomore year on, students will be encouraged to live in a new country, or at least a new city, every semester.
- That algorithm just doesn’t understand me: Winners of a competition sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation have devised algorithms that can grade essays.
- Today’s assignment is from “Mythbusters:” Big media companies, such as Discovery Communications and the News Corporation, are moving into the digital textbooks business in a big way. They see it as a boom market that could become a new source of revenue.
- You tie shoes?: According to an infographic from LearnStuff.com, 1.5 million iPads will be used in classrooms this year. Also, while 70 percent of American children between ages two and five can use a computer mouse, only 11 percent can ties their own shoes.
Video bonus: Want to hear why so many top universities have become enamored of Coursera? Here’s co-founder Daphne Koller, in a recent TED talk, laying out why online courses should be a big part of college education’s future.
Also on Smithsonian.com
January 26, 2012
Last week Steve Jobs came back to life. Or at least his aura did. At an “education event” in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Apple proclaimed that the time has come to “reinvent the textbook” and who better to do it than Apple. The mythic leader himself had put a Jobsian spin on the matter during one of his interviews with writer Walter Issacson for the best-selling biography, Steve Jobs. Textbook publishing, Jobs pronounced, was “an $8 billion industry ripe for digital destruction.”
Let the sacking begin.
In a time when your cell phone can tell you the weather forecast and your car can give you directions, textbooks can feel so, well, unresponsive. They’re not all that different from what they were like when people were riding horses to work, except they cost a whole lot more. They’re still are a pain to keep current, still get dog-earred, still can make you feel like you’re lugging around bricks.
Enter the iPad. Apple’s solution, naturally, is to replace textbooks with sleek, light, nimble iPads and its big announcement last week was that it’s rolling out a new version of its electronic bookstore called iBooks 2, and filling it with titles of its new partners, some of the biggest textbook publishers in the business. The e-books will cost $14.99 each, a pittance in this business, and be a breeze to update. Plus, they’ll be interactive, with touchscreen diagrams, audio and video. And you’ll be able to do word searches.
Apple even has research to back up its contention that the iPad blows away the conventional textbook as a teaching tool. A study done in a California middle school last year found that almost 20 percent more students (78 percent versus 59 percent) scored ”Proficient” or “Advanced” in Algebra I courses when using an iPad.
So it’s all good, right?
Well, there is the matter of how you ensure that every kid has an iPad. Even if Apple offers a discount below the $500 price tag, most public schools aren’t exactly flush with cash these days. And not everyone has been dazzled by Apple’s innovation. Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES, a program that helps intergrate technology into the classroom, says that for all the bells and whistles, what iBooks brings to education is more tweak than reinvention. It still treats students as consumers, whereas technology at its best, says Martinez, encourages them to be creators.
Blogger Steve McCabe, writing in “Tidbits,” which covers Apple products, goes even farther. He hopes that in future iterations, Apple’s textbook software will allow more personalized learning where the content will be able to interact with the student–Siri turns tutor–instead of just the other way around. For now, McCabe argues, Apple is offering students an experience not all that different from a CD-ROM in the 1990s.
Steve Jobs is rolling over.
The new college try
Even more dramatic changes in education are bubbling up at the college level. Last month MIT announced the launch this spring of a new initiative called MITx, which will allow people around the world to take MIT courses. For free.
Getting an MIT education at no charge seems like one sweet deal, although it’s not quite that simple. The course selection will be fairly limited, at least initially, and a MITx student won’t be able to earn a degree, but simply a “certificate of completion.” It’s also possible that there will be an “affordable” charge for a certificate. But unlike other online courses the university offers, the MITx platform will give students access to real online labs–not just simulations–and student-to-student discussions. It’s open source software and MIT expects other universities and high schools around the country will eventually end up using it.
That will only swell the latest wave of free online learning, pioneered by websites such as Academic Earth, which began streaming videos of lectures by professors at the country’s top universities almost four years ago and now has Bill Gates among its biggest fans, and Khan Academy, the brainchild of MIT graduate Salman Khan, who began making his conversational video tutorials in 2005 and now has more than 100,000 people around the world viewing his lessons every day. (See Khan’s recent interview with Forbes to see where he thinks all this is headed.) There’s Codeacademy, which teaches coding newbies how to build apps.
And now add a new player called Udacity, which has its own curious history. Last fall Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, who’s also been leading the development of Google’s driverless car, sent out an email to a professional network saying that he would offer his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course–the same one he taught at the university–online without charge. Within days 10,000 people had signed up; eventually 160,000 would, including an unusually large contingent of Lithuanians and several Afghans who skirted through war zones to get to Internet connections. When the course ended in December, 248 people had earned perfect scores; none of them was an official Stanford student.
Things apparently got a little tense when Thrun let Stanford administrators know about his plan to offer his class for free. So it’s no surprise that he decided to leave the university and go out on his own. He describes using technology to make free, high-quality education available worldwide as “like a drug.”
Next month Udacity will offer its first two courses, “Building a Search Engine” and “Programming a Robotic Car.” Not for everyone, but available to anyone.
Video Bonus: Watch Sebastian Thrun’s talk at the recent Digital Life Design conference and hear how his decision to teach free courses felt like a choice out of The Matrix.