YouTube U: The Power Of Stanford's Free Online Education

Taught by two Googlers and available on YouTube free of charge, the class might be the largest instance of group education in the world, and the students—even around the world—seem to be eating it up.

If "Occupy X" is about protesting jagged inequalities, are we due to see "Occupy The Ivy’s" anytime soon? Tuition hikes and rising student debt are conspiring to make post-secondary education more wretchedly expensive every day.

At least Stanford shouldn’t lose sleep worrying about encampments. This fall, it’s home to a radical experiment that involves putting three classic engineering classes entirely online, for anyone in the world, for free. Whether it’s an economically smart move for the university is unclear. But the program is a stunning experiment in both distance learning—and in broadening higher ed’s reach to the other 99%.

In the late summer, professors leading three traditional Stanford classes—an introduction to AI, to databases and to machine learning—decided to offer their classes online for free to anyone in the world. Those who successfully pass the class will earn a "statement of accomplishment," autographed by the profs. (Stanford students taking the classes in situ will also rack up credit hours, too.)

Professor Andrew Ng is teaching machine learning; professor Jennifer Widom is serving up an introduction to database management. But the class that has proven wildly popular is "An Introduction to AI." The duo that jointly teach the AI class are hardly your rumpled-shirt, pocket-protector kinds of profs. Both have day jobs helping run research at the grand Googleplex, not all that far from Stanford. They’re also heavyweights in the AI world, particularly Sebastian Thrun who several years ago built an autonomous car that snagged top prize in a DARPA "Grand Challenge" contest.

By the time the class started on October 10, 160,000 people had signed up online. A huge number were just doing brain-buzzing window shopping: Professor Peter Norvig says he wondered whether some really had the math chops to take the course or just watched Terminator and though AI was cool. Thrun warned many off by cheerfully promising they’d have to clock the same amount of time on homework as a "good" Stanford student—up to 12 hours per week.

Three weeks into the class, EdSurge was privy to some stunning statistics. Yes, there was a huge attrition. Even so, a full 35,000 people handed in the first three weeks’ of homework, making this likely the largest single class on the planet. (A distant second: a multi-site dance class for 26,797 rollicking primary school students in Liverpool on a day back in July 2008.)

The students are lurking all over the world; most of them have full-time jobs, leaving only the wee hours of the morning for reviewing lectures and tackling homework sets—a habit shared by many of Stanford’s engineering students but for different reasons. Some watch the videos as many as 20 times apiece. One geographic disparity: Chinese students account for less than 1% of the online cohort, largely because the videos are delivered via YouTube and China is (for the most part) blocking YouTube.

Norvig and Thrun’s videos are spare and oddly low tech: most are only two or three minutes long and feature a pen scratching out equations on a piece of paper and a voice over talking through the math. That simplicity promises the fewest technical hiccups for students—and the easiest way to record the lectures, Norvig says. Thrun concedes that he may spend seven hours making an hour-long video, just to get every detail right. He had better: "If I make a mistake, I’ll get about a thousand emails about it."

Even to the professors, lecture by video can feel surprisingly intimate. "I can get away with things when I teach a lecture class that I can’t online," Thrun concedes. "Now I’m thinking intensely about the student experience." Some pedagogical approaches just don’t work: Thrun likes to pepper his lectures with questions that he may not be ready to answer. That doesn’t fly online. "The students aren’t too happy because they expect the instructor to know everything in the virtual environment," Norvig notes.

Discussion groups seem to have sprung up on platforms as diverse as Reddit, Facebook, and Stack Overflow. And cheating? It will probably happen, acknowledge the professors. Stanford will award those who pass the final exam a "certificate of accomplishment," signed by Thrun and Norvig—incentive enough to take the class but hopefully not enough to go to the trouble of cheating, say the profs.

The biggest emotional reward for many may be proving—at least to themselves—that they can keep pace with a Stanford student, Norvig says. There are 175 Stanford students taking the class live and in situ, for course credit. The final grades of both live and online students will include a class ranking, Thrun promises. So far, he’s been impressed that the percentage of top performers in the online contingent is on par with the percentage of top performers at Stanford.

Just how disruptive such online classes will be to traditional bricks-and-ivy schools is unclear. Norvig feels it isn’t a stretch to think that online classes have some of the same needs as physical ones. For example, homework is due from everyone every Monday, regardless of geographic location, because in physical environments, "homework is done because it’s due," he contends. Norvig may have a point. While online class technologies can spur unprecedented access and collaboration, instructors may need to find ways to recreate the social norms and motivators that foster student engagement in the physical world to create real and lasting success in online education.

By Leonard Medlock and Betsy Corcoran

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  • David G Sharpe

    A practical, behind-the-scenes question -- when 35,000 students turn in the first three weeks of homework, who processes that (and how?)?  I teach an online writing course at Ohio University, and reading and responding to 'only' 40 students is already two-thirds of my workload.  I can't do that for free, nor can I do it for 875 times the number of students.

  • Feedback

    it's a great question: I believe that they've automated much of the homework grading but I'll confirm with the class.

  • Tristan Ursell

    Just to add some good vibes -- the picture at the top was randomly chosen from Flickr.  My good friend Peretz, who is taking both ML and AI classes, took this picture of me, a Stanford Postdoc, sitting doing some light reading late at night with an Afghan wolf fur hat on,  I had never imagined that this photo would end up as a headline photo for such an awesome article :)

  • Carol Steinfeld

    Great article. I took my first online class via a local community college 10 years ago. I like MIT's opencourseware and I really like P2PU.org, a peer-to-peer free educational resource. 

  • Scooterch

    Of interest is the entire Open Courseware Consortium, which has many members around the world including ivy league universities and innovative new institutions. http://www.ocwconsortium.org/
    Though some curricula are patchy, and tutorial support lacking in many cases for unregistered students, about the only thing stopping self-learners is time and motivation.

  • Dartigen

    I love online learning, don't get me wrong - I suffer severe hayfever, sometimes so bad I can barely breathe for the sneezing and can't go to my campus because it's just too dangerous to drive and it annoys the other students, plus where I live it's not uncommon in summer for temperatures to soar past 40 Celsius, thus making going to and from the campus an odious task and potentially dangerous too. It's a great option for those in places with extreme weather, or who are frequently ill - or, as was mentioned, who work full-time and can't study in normal hours.
    Where I study, we do have online courses. The problem is keeping up.
    I seem to just be unable to keep up with work if I don't have a regular class. I'm not sure if this is a common issue or not. (I try, I really do, but it's easy to forget or get behind without regular checks and regular deadlines.)

    So maybe the best option is a hybrid model - classes open for those who want to and are able to attend (especially good if students have difficult questions or need to show the teacher something) with course material online for those who can't or don't want to attend.

    (Online is also significantly better for the teachers - it gives them a way to still get the lesson through even if, say, their car is stolen, or they fall ill, or there's heavy snow and they're trapped in their house. It means that the teachers also don't have to restrict their normal daily lives, so they can spend time getting up-to-date on their area of expertise, or just having lives outside of work in general.)

  • larry alvarado

    Learning for the sake of learning is always great - sharpens the mind, helps you with many ideas, is interesting, etc.  Khan Academy is a great resource for K-12, similar in concept and platform. 
    We're going to need some type of 'accreditation' institution that can confer something that counts for the work world or other learning institutions.  Right now, this is a great help to learn ideas and class subjects.  Something like this is the future of education - here it comes! 

  • Scott

    This would be a great way to drive down the cost of college class. Instead of 175 in class students paying $1000 each, you could have thousands of on-line students paying significantly less. Written by a dad with a son in a private college!

  • mgozaydin

    Dear Scott
    Stanford graduate students pay $ 3930 per 3 credit course per quarter .
    But the cost of online can be nill if course is taken by only 10,000 or so .My proposal is share your online courses with other colleges in the USA. Only the voters can accomplish to make the Department of Education to do that. Write to your Governers, your Senators. A tuition of $ 100 per course is just a step away. But know how to get it . Write your senators.  Tell them let us share online courses in all USA .

  • Joanne Moretti

    Good for Stanford...they are disrupting as they should be!  They will certainly find other ways to Drive revenue through this medium and it will reflect positively on them....while the other schools appear greedy.  Go Stanford!!!

  • mgozaydin

    That is the way going to be from now on.
    I am glad this movement started before Wall Street Movement.
    I am proud to be a Stanford alumna. Do not forget MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, UCLA; Uni of Mich.
    Columbia they also have wonderful online classes at  www.academicearth.org for the last 5 years. They have total 150 or so courses. They do not have credits. So I encourage all colleges to adopt these courses in their online curricula,, assign an instructor and give credits when students completes the requirements.
    People need bread, people need jobs, people need degrees to get a job . If there is no joblessness , it would be wonderful to take courses for advancement in your profession .
    I wish the first success of the Wall Street Movement would be on the tuitions of the colleges through online .
    Cost of online is only 1/10 of f2f education. Period.  Just look up even ivy league provides it free.
    High tuitions are artificial. Federal Government should cut the loans .