School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

And then there were 35,000

The great online learning experiment that began on October 10 at Stanford University rolls on, albeit with a smaller, but still historical, number of students. In a previous blog post I wrote about a free, online class in Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) offered by two rock stars in the world of A.I., Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. My husband and 140,000 others signed up for this class.

Each week I’ve witnessed my husband (an intellectual property attorney by day) labor through homework assignments that would induce migraines in most ordinary folk. And evidently many migraines have been induced, as each week the class size has dropped from its peak of 140,000 to the current estimate of about 35,000. In order to continue you must turn in completed homework assignments every week. The online students are ranked against the Stanford students taking the class on campus, and earn a certificate of completion at the course’s end. Stanford students earn regular course credit.

The professors estimate that the typical student should spend about 12 hours each week on lectures and homework. For those day laborers like my husband, this means many a late night and weekend are spent tackling course work and listening to lectures. For the two professors, the prospect of 35,000 students hanging on your every word means spending extra hours getting every detail of the lecture right. Observed Professor Thrun: “If I make a mistake, I’ll get about a thousand emails about it.”

The class message boards reveal the intensive nature of the work. For example, students had to be reminded to drink water and get rest after one student apparently collapsed from exhaustion (clearly the class needs a cyber-room mom). And in a new twist on the age-old town versus gown rivalry, a higher percentage of online students have scored “perfect” on the homework than did their in-class counterparts at Stanford. A surprised Professor Thrun queried “how can this be?”

What is the class like? According to my husband, it’s a lot like treading water because the course work is “very difficult. You have to work really hard just to understand the basics of it.” Another participant lamented that during one lecture he felt as if he’d just “had a stroke” because the material was so challenging. Being able to review the lectures online multiple times is “very useful,” as are the message boards, which abound with additional materials and supplemental online lectures. For example, one student posted online lecture materials from a similar course at Berkeley, which many students found more instructive than the online Stanford ones.

The downside of being an online student? Like many online learning experiences, the lack of in-class connection, and the inability to ask the professor questions in real time can be frustrating. Students who completed all homework over the first four weeks of class did receive a “you are doing great” email from “Sebastian and Peter” over the weekend, with a friendly reminder that the next homework assignment is due today.

Beth T. Sigall

November 14, 2011

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