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