Friday, 17 May 2013

A review of the Stanford AI Class

It all started with an email. Sebastian Thrun, a Computer Science Professor at Stanford University announced to the 1,000 recipients of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence mailing list that he would be offering his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence Class for free on the web.

A few weeks later, 160,000 people had registered.

While Massive Open Online Courses can trace their origins to several experiments linked to the Open Educational Resources movement, after 2008, the Stanford AI Class and the two other classes that soon followed from Stanford (Machine Learning and Introduction to Databases) set the template:

  • Massive

Rather than set a limit on class size, the AI Class simply let everybody join. Out of 160,000 who enrolled, 23,000 obtained a Certificate of Completion. While the 14% completion rate started the ongoing controversy of MOOC’s retention rate, Sebastian Thrun focused on the fact that 23,000 people from all around the world passed a class with the same criteria as Stanford students (none of which were even in the top 100).

  • Open

The AI Class ‘attended’ by people from all ages and walks of life, and every country on Earth except North Korea.

  • Online

Although students impromptu study groups around the world, the AI Class was entirely online (Stanford students even started to desert the lecture hall as the online format more convenient)

  • Course

The Stanford AI Class promised to go beyond what had been done with OpenCourseWare. Lectures, identical in content to the on-campus class, would be posted weekly. Regular assignments, midterms and finals, the same as the Stanford students, would have strict deadlines.

We’ve seen before what could be criteria for a good MOOC and the AI Class is now available through Udacity so... how good was it?

  • Pedagogy

Unlike the current Udacity offering, the AI Class was synchronous and more than 10 weeks long. The pedagogy however, was very web-focused with concept explained via short videos and frequently tested with on-screen quizzes.

  • Professor’s aura

Sebastian Thrun was the director of Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. A Google VP, he was also responsible for the driverless car project. His co-professor, Peter Norvig is the Head of research at Google.

  • Quality and availability of teaching staff

No teaching assistant were helping the professors out in the forums but this was compensated by the availability and depth of knowledge of many students.

  • Academic rigor

Midterms and finals were the same for online and Stanford students.

  • Student body

The size and variety of the student body ensured that the forums were lively with interesting debates. Some industry experts were also taking the class out of curiosity for the format and seemed to enthusiastically tutor their less advanced classmates.

  • Corporate sponsors

The AI Class was launched without corporate sponsors but Sebastian Thrun offered the 1,000 best online students the opportunity to pass their CVs to some of his contacts in some of California’s best known technology companies.

  • Interactivity

Although interactivity was limited, the most popular questions from student were answered weekly during recorded office hours sessions and the two professors were quick to address issues raised on the forums.

  • Technical platform

The AI Class technical platform is now underpinning Udacity and was simple yet effective.

  • Production value

Most of the videos were of the professor’s hand, writing on a white sheet of paper. Perhaps surprisingly, this made students feel as if they were privately tutored. An enhanced version of this method is still in use with most of Udacity’s classes.

When announced, the AI Class was a very tempting proposition  It offered an introductory course from a prestigious institution taught by two indisputable experts.
It more than delivered on its promise. Not only did the Stanford AI Class set the template for what a Massive Open Online Course could be, it also spurred the ongoing MOOC revolution.

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