The long tail of free online education

Last Fall, three Stanford classes were “offered online” for free: Andrew Ng’s machine learning class, Sebastian Thrun’s AI class, and Jennifer Widom’s data base class. There had been interest and experiments in online free education for a long time, with the MITx initiative being a particularly significant one, but there were a few innovations in last year’s Stanford classes, and they probably contributed to their runaway success and six-digit enrollment.

One difference was that they did not post videos of the in-class lectures. There was, in fact, no in-class lecture. Instead, they taped short videos, rehearsed and edited, with the content of a standard 90-minute class broken down in 4 ten-minutes video or so. This is about the difference between taping a play and making a movie. Then the videos came with some forms of “interactivity” (quizzes that had to be answered to continue), and they were released at the rate in which the class progressed, so that there was a community of students watching the videos at the same time and able to answer each other’s questions in forums. Finally, the videos were used in the Stanford offerings of the classes: the students were instructed to watch the videos by themselves, and during the lecture time they would solve problems, or have discussions or have guest lectures and so on. (In K-12 education, this is called the “flipped classroom” model, in which students take lectures at home and solve homeworks in class, instead of the traditional other way around.)

In the past few months, there has been a lot of thinking, and a lot of acting, about the success of this experiment. Sebastian Thrun started a company called udacity to offer online courses “branded” by the company itself, and Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng started a company called coursera to provide a platform for universities to put their courses online, and, meanwhile, Harvard and Berkeley joined MIT to create edX.

At a time when the growth of higher education costs in the United States appear unsustainable, particularly in second-tier universities, and when the demand for high-quality higher education is exploding in the developing world, these projects have attracted a lot of interest.

While the discussion has been focused on the “summer blockbusters” of higher education, and what they should be like, who is going to produce them, how to make money from them, and so on, I would like to start a discussion on the “art house” side of things.

In universities all over the world, tens of thousands of my colleagues, after they have “served” their departments teaching a large undergraduate classes and maybe a required graduate class, get to have fun teaching a research-oriented graduate class. Their hard-earned insights into problems about which they are the world’s leading expert, be it a particular organ of the fruit fly or a certain corner of the Langlands program, are distilled into a series of lectures featuring content that cannot be found anywhere else. All for the benefit of half a dozen or a dozen students.

If these research-oriented, hyper-specialized courses were available online, those courses might have an audience of 20 or 30 students, instead of 100,000+, but their aggregate effect on their research communities would be, I believe, very significant.

One could also imagine such courses being co-taught by people at different universities. For example, imagine James Lee and Assaf Naor co-teaching a course on metric embeddings and approximation algorithms: they would devise a lesson plan together, each would produce half of the videos, and then at both NYU and UW the students would watch the videos and meet in class for discussions and working on problems; meanwhile study groups would probably pop up in many theory groups, of students watching the videos and working on the problem sets together.

So someone should put a research-oriented graduate course online, and see what happens. This is all to say that I plan to teach my class on graph partitioning, expander graphs, and random walks online in Winter 2013. Wish me luck!

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13 thoughts on “The long tail of free online education

  1. OK, Luca, I’ll bite. I can imagine some advantages associated with an undergraduate class (or even a beginning graduate class) being taught as a video-based course rather than a textual-based course (e.g., a textbook, or perhaps as you have often done, as a series of lecture notes posted on your blog.) For example, at the undergraduate level, it is clear that some people who have difficulty reading textbooks benefit from hearing material spoken by a teacher.

    But the advantages are less clear when one talks about a research oriented class. In particular, given the advanced level of material, it is often much easier to follow a text or written lecture than it is to follow a live lecture (or video lecture).

    Some strawman responses:

    * Now, if one says that the advantage of a video lecture is the interactivity supported by the various Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), then I would respond that I skeptical that tools I’ve seen so far to date (e.g., class bulletin boards) scale well to a research-level course. But even if they are, there is no reason that they cannot be used equally well with a written lecture as with a video lecture.

    * And if one says that the advantage of a video lecture is that it takes less time to prepare than written material, I think that requires proof. (I recall that Richard Feynman used to practice each of his lectures in full before he would give it in public).

    * And if one says that the advantage of a video lecture is that it is easier to keep up to date as material changes, then I simply must disagree. This may be true if one thinks of printed books, where revised editions may require several years, but it is scarcely true of material presented on the Web.

    All of which is to say that I hope you still post your lecture notes online in this blog — for while I predict that your video course will be a smashing success, I think your written lecture notes may be even more useful. After all, you do write magnificently. And if you one day decide to write a text or research monograph, I’ll definitely pre-order it on Amazon.

  2. I agree! The special classes aren’t taught in many places, and could really use recording so that everyone can enjoy them. We’ve done this so far for three classes:

    Advanced Data Structures –
    Geometric Folding Algortihms –
    Planar Graph Algorithms –

    See also our guide for recording your own lectures:

  3. Luca: Great point. There are probably quite a few people who could put together a decent undergrad AI course–I don’t mean to understate the amount of work and talent required to do it well, but I think there are at least a few dozen people who could do it. But _some_ graduate courses are utterly unique, or at least come with a unique emphasis or perspective. (I think your course will be a fine example of that.)

    Doug: My personal experience is that it does indeed take less time to prepare a lecture than written material; for me, by about a factor of four. I suppose much of this gap is because of higher standards for the written material; e.g. machine-drawn figures instead of hand-drawn, formal prose instead of conversational. If I had to write out all my graduate lectures so they could stand alone, I’d never get them done on time. Though I agree with you that it would be better if I could.

  4. @anon I plan to use a platform that John Mitchell and his students have been developing for some time.

    @doug and jonathan: in my experience it takes 5-10 hours to write down lecture notes for a 90-minute class, but it takes only 1-2 hours if I don’t write notes, so it’s in the ballpark of the factor of 4 of Jonathan’s. I have been told that it takes about 10 hours to produce videos with the content of a 90-minute class (not counting editing, uploading etc which is done by a ta) so there is no advantage there.

    I think that it is easier to learn advanced material by taking a class than by reading a book: part of it is that a proof presented verbally has a different “flow” from the way it is usually written down (although I make an effort, in papers and notes, to write proofs as I would describe them verbally); part of it is the schedule of two classes a week, that keeps you moving forward, while on your own it’s easier to get sidetracked. The online class format would recreate those advantages for the non-Stanford students taking the class. For the Stanford students, there is the “flipped classroom” model, of which I am skeptical, but people that know about teaching more than I do swear by its effectiveness.

  5. 10 hours to produce videos? Why so long?

    I couldn’t lecture half as well in a studio as I do live–I need the audience to get in the flow, the bigger the better–so I don’t foresee ever doing 10-hour videos.

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