Online Computer Science classes that have attracted tens of thousands of students have been put back for a couple of weeks. Is this on account of Sebastian Thrun's recent announcement that he can no longer teach students at Stanford?
Students who are signed up for Stanford University Online Computer Science Classes in Cryptography, Natural Language Processing, Human-Computer Interaction and Design and Analysis of Algorithms I, which were due to start during January, were sent emails telling them of the delay:
Unfortunately, there are still a few administrative i's to dot and t's to cross. We're still hopeful that we'll go live very soon, and we'll let you know a firm date as soon as we possibly can.
I Programmer was one of the sites that spread the word about last autumn's Online Classes so, to follow up our previous news item on the 2012 classes, I emailed Stanford to ask for the revised dates and the reason for the delay. I've not yet had a reply so I started to look for clues.
So is it just that the technical infrastructure isn't in place to cope with so many students and it is sheer weight of numbers that has led to the postponement? One of the courses has attracted 45,000 sign ups, although they might not all stay the course. Among the sixteen Stanford courses being offered online this semester, ten are in Computer Science and, spoiled by choice, some students signed up for all of them.
Or is the clue in the timing of the email, which arrived just before Sebastian Thrun's public announcement that he had decided he could never again teach a roomful of students due to the life-changing experience of teaching An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence to as many as 160,000 students? This number is probably an overestimate as it is the total number of sign-ups. More realistically, towards the end of the course Peter Norvig, the co-presenting Stanford Professor for the course, quoted a figure of more than 40,000 students still listening in and eventually 23,000 graduated from the "advanced" course and gained a Statement of Accomplishment, reporting overall score for the course, signed by both professors.
If may be that the hold-up to the next round of classes is to do with the issue of certification. In an All Tech Considered item, prepared for American public radio station NPR, Professor Andrew Ng, whose Machine Learning Class was another that was successfully completed by tens of thousand of students last semester and is one of those due to start in February, said that there had been long conversations about whether or not to give online students a certificate bearing the university's name before the authorities settled on giving students a personalized letter from the professors without mentioning the university's name. Fortunately there are plenty of online programs available from accredited schools that students can still choose from.
It seems the debate about certification is still ongoing but speaking in the broadcast, James Plummer, dean of Stanford's School of Engineering said:
"I think it will actually be a long time, maybe never, when actual Stanford degrees would be given for fully online work by anyone who wishes to register for the courses."
Another reason for the delay is that Stanford wants to make sure that its own students who have to get through a tough admissions process and pay, often $50,000 for a master's degree, get the superior educational experience they expect from top-name professors. In his talk at DLD2012 Sebastian Thrun tells how part way into the "physical" version of last Autumn's Introduction to Artificial Intelligence he discovered that the number of students in the room had dropped dramatically. When he asked where the others were he was told that many students preferred the video versions where you could rewind to have a point repeated and have multiple goes at a quiz. So the online course was being perceived as a richer experience - even though its students were not paying anything.
It may be that Stanford does not want to lose its most high profile teachers. Also at DLD, Thrun announced that, after the experience of the online class he can never teach at Stanford again to teach a roomful of students. He has given up his tenure at Stanford to found Udacity, a venture which aims to bring more free classes to the huge numbers of students - he hopes to have 50,000 for the first two courses for which enrollment is now open. He also mentioned the way in which the interactive model of teaching using quizzes and forums, had been pioneered at Stanford by professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. An article in Inside Higher Ed says that Koller and Ng
[have] not decided whether to spin off a company or nonprofit organization of their own. But they are considering their options.
What if all the tutors who are about to teach this terms online classes decide that the future of education is online. Where will this leave Stanford? After it has supported its staff in putting the university's established courses online. it might be a bit of blow to discover they are not prepared to teach face-to-face again.
According to All Tech Considered, Dean Plummer is concerned about what Stanford has unleashed. IN particualr the thinks that the impact of low-cost, high-quality online education on master's programs could be profound.
In my previous article about the launch of Udacity, I asked whether, without the Stanford connection, would so many students have been attracted to the course. In setting up Udacity its founders have done some reearch asking those who took the AI course:
'Which is more important to you -- the reputation of the instructor, or the reputation of the institution?'
and the answer came back: The Instructor.
Yes, I have to agree, I was (and am) thrilled with the signatures of Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig on my own, personal, Statement of Accomplishment - but I also know they have the Stanford stamp of approval.
The good news about the delay to this months Stanford Online Computer Science courses is that there is still time to sign up. They are free and on successful completion you can expect a letter signed by one or more prestigious Stanford Professors.