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General, Technology

Educational experiments 101

Stanford's AI-Class

Stanford's AI-Class: Image from ai-class.com

About four or five years ago I got very excited when Stanford University started to put teaching materials from its robotics courses online, for anyone, anywhere in the world to access for free.

I excitedly downloaded the lot. Then due to a combination of rapidly diminishing spare time, and some staggeringly hard-looking mathematics, they sat on my desktop gathering virtual dust. Instead I embarked on studying for my Open University degree, my confidence in maths improved (a little) but the course material remained untouched.

However, Stanford have again rekindled my interest in Open access education. The US college has just launched a new and very exciting experiment. Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor, teaches Artificial Intelligence at the school.

Now the entrepreneurial educator has launched an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course.

It’s somewhat remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, unlike previous attempts to widen access to first-rate teaching, Thrun and his team are not just stopping at providing access to materials for budding Susan Calvin’s to browse through in their spare time.

This time the course has structure, it provides a teaching schedule, assignments, exams. The course becomes effectively a taught module – at least taught in the sense that I and fellow OU students would understand the term.

There is even a certificate of completion at the end of the course – not a Stanford qualification, but a form of recognition that students have gone through the three-month course.

Secondly, the course is free and the cohort is seemingly unlimited. I signed up earlier this week – at the time the number of registered students was 35,000. At the time of actually writing this post a further 20,000 have signed up.

IEEE’s Automaton blog – where I found out about the cost – reckons that by the time the course actually gets underway – upwards of 250,000 people could have signed on.

This is exciting – it’s a first toe in the water by a major established university at creating an open education system – or as the University describes it – a distributed education system.

It makes sense. We now consume information and entertainment over wide, powerful distributed networks – why not education too?

Yes, it’s true to say that the OU has been doing this for years, it uses a variety of technologies to deliver courses, but never for free. The taster sessions it offers aren’t taught courses. However, as course fees rise, the OU will be watching the experiment with interest. Could it do something similar, offering free, short courses in a bid to woo new students, to help them understand the value and excitement of education?

Like Stanford, the OU knows how to take advantage of our connected world. This has the potential to become a very powerful recruitment tool for educational establishments.

I am incredibly excited at the prospect of studying the course and it will be interesting to see how it differs or resembles the OU. One things for sure, it’s going to be fascinating.

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