If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever | Udacity

Stanford doesn’t want me. I can say that because it’s a documented fact: I was once denied admission in writing. I took my last math class back in high school. Which probably explains why this quiz on how to get a computer to calculate an ideal itinerary is making my brain hurt. I’m staring at a crude map of Romania on my MacBook. Twenty cities are connected in a network of straight black lines. My goal is to determine the best route from Arad to Bucharest. A handful of search algorithms with names like breadth-first, depth-first, uniform-cost, and A* can be used. Each employs a different strategy for scanning the map and considering various paths. I’ve never heard of these algorithms or considered how a computer determines a route. But I’ll learn, because despite the utter lack of qualifications I just mentioned, I’m enrolled in CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, a graduate- level course taught by Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig.

Last fall, the university in the heart of Silicon Valley did something it had never done before: It opened up three classes, including CS221, to anyone with a web connection. Lectures and assignments—the same ones administered in the regular on-campus class—would be posted and auto-graded online each week. Midterms and finals would have strict deadlines. Stanford wouldn’t issue course credit to the non-matriculated students. But at the end of the term, students who completed a course would be awarded an official Statement of Accomplishment.

People around the world have gone crazy for this opportunity. Fully two-thirds of my 160,000 classmates live outside the US. There are students in 190 countries—from India and South Korea to New Zealand and the Republic of Azerbaijan. More than 100 volunteers have signed up to translate the lectures into 44 languages, including Bengali. In Iran, where YouTube is blocked, one student cloned the CS221 class website and—with the professors’ permission—began reposting the video files for 1,000 students.

Aside from computer-programming AI-heads, my classmates range from junior-high school students and humanities majors to middle-aged middle school science teachers and seventysomething retirees. One student described CS221 as the “online Woodstock of the digital era.” Personally, I signed up to have the experience of taking a Stanford course. Learning about artificial intelligence would be a nice bonus. After all, if I’m ever going to let a self-driving car speed me down a highway at 65 mph, it’ll be comforting to have a basic understanding of what’s behind the wheel.

It’s not until the second week of class that I notice a small disclaimer on the AI course website: Prerequisites: A solid understanding of probability and linear algebra will be required.

Solid understanding? I majored in English. This makes me a “fuzzy” (what Stanford techies call liberal arts majors behind their backs). And now I’m trying to wrap my head around Bayesian probability, a branch of statistics that in the past 25 years has revolutionized a dozen fields from genomics and robotics to neuroscience. I’m told it all boils down to this formula:

P (A|B) = P (B|A) P(A)
                         P (B)

Apply this rule to a computational problem and you can make efficient predictions based on otherwise unreliable data. Practical applications, aside from programming autonomous cars, include calculating a woman’s risk of breast cancer, analyzing DNA, and building a better spam filter.

That stuff’s all easier said than done. But the basics are actually fairly basic. I manage to score 58 percent on this homework assignment. I may not comprehend every which way to Bucharest. But in five weeks maybe I’ll be ready to tackle a spam filter.

Sebastian Thrun stepped onstage at the March 2011 TED conference in Long Beach, California. In a ballroom filled with 1,000 heavyweight thinkers, the roboticist and AI guru offered a peek at his latest project at Google: a charcoal-gray Toyota Prius outfitted with a laser range finder, radar, and cameras. He showed video of the sedan navigating through highway traffic, dodging deer on a pitch-dark road, and even zigzagging down San Francisco’s Lombard Street—all without a human so much as touching the wheel, the gas, or the brake. The applause roared.

You’d think that would have been Thrun’s favorite moment at TED. But it wasn’t. Salman Khan also made a presentation that week. The founder of Khan Academy, which wired profiled last August, told the story of his nearly six-year-old website, which provides more than 2,800 tutorial videos in subjects like science, math, and economics. Khan capped off his talk by emphasizing how he’s growing a “global one-world classroom.” Joining him onstage, Bill Gates called Khan Academy “the future of education.” For Thrun, it was a full-on epiphany. “I was flabbergasted,” he says. “I teach a lot of great students at Stanford. But the entire world is out there.”

Even on a campus with 17 Nobel laureates, four Pulitzer Prize winners, and 18 recipients of the National Medal of Science, Thrun has managed to distinguish himself. In 2004, six months after arriving at Palo Alto as an associate professor, he was named director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The next year his team won the Darpa Grand Challenge, a competition to build an autonomous car that can drive itself across the Nevada desert. (Wired wrote about the 132-mile robo-race in 2006.) For Thrun’s achievement, Stanford was awarded a $2 million prize. Today “Stanley,” Thrun’s self-driving Volkswagen Touareg, lives at the Smithsonian. In April 2011, Thrun gave up his tenure at Stanford to head Google X, a lab created to incubate the company’s most ambitious and secretive projects. He was also free to pursue outside ventures.

After seeing Khan at TED, Thrun dusted off a PowerPoint presentation he’d put together in 2007. Back then he had begun envisioning a YouTube for education, a for-profit startup that would allow students to discover and take courses from top professors. In a few slides, he’d spelled out the nine essential components of a university education: admissions, lectures, peer interaction, professor interaction, problem-solving, assignments, exams, deadlines, and certification. While Thrun admired MIT’s OpenCourseWare—the university’s decade-old initiative to publish online all of its lectures, syllabi, and homework from 2,100 courses—he thought it relied too heavily on videos of actual classroom lectures. That was tapping just one-ninth of the equation, with a bit of course material thrown in as a bonus.

Thrun knew firsthand what it was like to crave superior instruction. When he was a master’s-degree student at the University of Bonn in Germany in the late 1980s, he found his AI professors to be clueless. He spent a lot of time filling in the gaps at the library, but he longed for a more direct connection to experts. Thrun created his PowerPoint presentation because he understood that university education was a system in need of disruption. But it wasn’t until he heard Khan’s talk that he appreciated he could do something about it. He spoke with Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research and his CS221 coprofessor, and they agreed to open up their next class to the entire world. Yes, it was an educational experiment, but Thrun realized that it could also be the first step in turning that old PowerPoint into an actual business.

In June he took the next step: cofounding KnowLabs, which he funded with $300,000 of his own money. He pulled in David Stavens, one of Stanley’s cocreators, as CEO; he tapped Stanford robotics researcher Mike Sokolsky to be CTO. They converted Thrun’s guesthouse into a temporary office. Thus ensconced on a scenic hillside on Page Mill Road near Stanford’s campus, the team began planning. They had eight weeks before the fall term started—not unreasonable given the modest scope of the project. Stavens thought they’d get 500 students. Sokolsky hoped for 1,000. Norvig figured they might hit 2,000.

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