School House Wonk

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

Archive for the tag “Sebastian Thrun”

Worth Checking Out . . .

Here’s what caught my attention this week in education news.

Online Remediation –Tamar Lewin and John Markoff of the New York Times report that in the California State University System “more than 50 percent of entering students cannot meet basic requirements” necessary for college entrance. Ellen N. Junn, provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Jose State University described it this way: “They graduate from high school, but they cannot pass our elementary math and English placement tests.”

To help remedy this crisis, Governor Jerry Brown and San Jose State took dramatic action this week, announcing an agreement to provide remedial and introductory courses through Udacity, the popular massive open online course (MOOC) provider.

In the pilot program, 300 students will have the option of taking online courses offered by Udacity in remedial algebra, college-level algebra and introductory statistics at a much lower cost ($150 for the 3-unit course offering). If the pilot is successful, it could be offered eventually to hundreds of thousands of students in the state.

Not everyone is happy with this development. Georgia Tech University professor Ian Bogost, cautions that outsourcing remediation instruction is the beginning of a slippery and ultimately dangerous descent into the privatization of public education.

Words of Wisdom – In A Wealth of Words, Core Knowledge Foundation founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues the best way to close America’s stubborn academic achievement gap is through vocabulary development. From Hirsch:

“[T]here’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

Hirsch urges that U.S. schools adopt a domain-based curriculum focusing much more heavily on actual content and less on process and problem-solving. According to Hirsch, countries following this path show much stronger gains in verbal scores across various demographics:

“The domain-based approach to literacy—using a coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language—is the educational policy of the nations that achieve the best verbal results for both advantaged and disadvantaged students and narrow the gaps between them. ”

So Long, AP CreditThis week Dartmouth University announced it would no longer recognize high school Advanced Placement (AP) exams for college credit. NPR reports that starting in 2018, Dartmouth will use AP scores for placement in freshman classes, but not for credit. Critics claim high school AP courses in no way resemble college instruction, while proponents point to the cost savings realized when students can complete some introductory level courses prior to college entrance.

[Note: An incomplete version of this blog post entitled “629” was sent out earlier today. I apologize for this technical error.]

Beth T. Sigall

January 18, 2013


The Udacity of Hope

Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who taught an online class in Artificial Intelligence (AI) that went viral, announced today he is leaving his tenured professorship at the university to start his own online university, Udacity, where courses will be taught for free to anyone in the world.

In kicking off his new virtual college, Thrun wasted no time with small ideas. His first course offering on building a search engine is described this way: “Learn programming in seven weeks. We’ll teach you enough about computer science that you can build a web search engine like Google or Yahoo!” Given Thrun’s Google pedigree, this is a promise he should be able to handle.

As previously explored in this space, Thrun and his colleague, Peter Norvig, set out to experiment with online learning by offering their top-rated Stanford course on AI to anyone for free. Their aim was to give the rest of the world access to the same instructional quality and content as those taking the traditional brick-and-mortar Stanford course. To remain in the course, online participants had to successfully complete the rigorous weekly homework assignments.

Felix Salmon wrote about this major announcement in a blog post Udacity and the Future of Online Universities from the Digital Life Design (DLD) Conference in Munich. At the conference, Thrun revealed some intriguing facts about his game-changing online learning course:

  • there were more students from Lithuania alone in the course than students at the physical Stanford class altogether.
  • the physical class at Stanford started with 200 students but shrunk to 30 students because, according to Salmon, “the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.”
  • Of all students who took the course, only 248 scored perfect (meaning never missed a homework or exam question). All of them took the course online.
  • And according to a DLD press release, one student in Afghanistan described “risking his life” just to reach a hotspot so he could finish his assignment.

It’s unclear why Thrun chose to sever his relationship with Stanford. It’s a risk for Thrun – will as many people sign up for an online case without the world-class Stanford name attached? Was the competition between the online and brick-and-mortar Stanford students a necessary ingredient to the success of the initial AI course?

His stated goal is certainly a worthy one.

Maybe we should rethink education. If we can make education free and accessible for the world, we can achieve things we never thought possible.

According to Salmon, Thrun’s transition to online teaching was inspired by the Khan Academy model. The Khan model turns the traditional system on its head through its focus on mastery over grades. Khan Academy students can access lectures and materials as much as they need in order to master content. Thrun admitted that in his years as a traditional professor, the goal in part was to weed out students with hard coursework, mostly designed to make the professor look smart. But, with Udacity, Thrun intends to reach and teach as many students as possible.

Beth T. Sigall

January 23, 2012

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