Monday, January 23, 2012

Making universities obsolete

Sebastian Thrun recently announced that he was leaving Stanford to found a free, online university called Udacity. This is based on his experiences teaching the famous intro to AI class, for free, to 160,000 students online.

Is this just Education for the Twitter Generation? Or truly a revolution in how we deliver higher education? Will this ultimately render universities obsolete?

I want to ponder the failings of the conventional higher education model for a minute and see where this leads us, and consider whether something like Udacity is really the solution.

Failure #1: Exclusivity.

In Sebatian's brilliant talk at DLD, he talks about being embarrassed that he was only able to teach a few tens of students at a time, and only to those who can afford $30,000 to attend Stanford. I estimate that I taught fewer than 500 students in total during my eight years on the faculty at Harvard. That's a pretty poor track record by any stretch.

It gets worse. I know plenty of faculty who love to give tough courses, in which they would teach really hard material at the beginning of the semester to "weed out" the weaker students, sometimes being left with only 2 or 3 really committed and really good students in the class. This is so much more satisfying as a professor, since you don't need to worry about tutoring the weaker students, and the fewer students you have, the less work you have to do grading and so on. There is no penalty for doing this - and rarely any incentive given for teaching a larger, more popular course.

Exclusivity is necessary when you only have so much classroom space, or so many dorms, or so many dining halls, so you have to be selective about who enters the hallowed gates of the university. It's also a way of maintaining a brand: even schools, like Harvard, with a "distance education" component go to great lengths to differentiate the "true" Harvard education from a "distance learning certificate," lest they raise the ire of the Old Boys' Network by watering down what it means to get a Harvard degree (not unlike the reaction they got when they started admitting women, way way back in 1977).

Failure #2: Grades.

Can someone remind me why we still have grades? I like what Sebastian says (quoting Salman Khan) about learning to ride a bicycle: It's not as if you get a D learning to ride a bike, then you stop and move onto learning the unicycle. Shouldn't the goal of every course be to get every student to the point of making an A+?

Apparently not. The common argument is that we need grades in order to differentiate the "good" from the "bad" students. Presumably the idea is that if you can't get through a course in the 12-to-13 week semester then you deserve to fail, regardless of whatever is going on in your life and whether you could have learned everything over a longer time span, or with more help, or whatever. And the really smart students, the ones who nail it the first time, and make A's in every class, need to float to the top so they get the first dibs on good jobs or law school or medical school or whatever rewards they have been working all of their young lives to achieve. It would not be fair if everyone made an A+ -- how would the privileged and smart kids gain any advantage over the less privileged, less intelligent kids?

It seems to me that this is completely at odds with the idea of education.

Failure #3: Lectures.

As Sebastian says, universities have been using the lecture format for more than a thousand years. I used to tell students that they were required to come to my lectures, and never provided my lectures by video, lest the students skipped class and watched it on YouTube from their dorms instead. Mostly this was to ensure that everybody in the class got the benefit of my dynamic and entertaining lecture style, which I worked so hard to perfect over the years (complete with a choreographed interpretive dance demonstrating the movement of the disk heads during a Log-Structured Filesystem cleaning operation.) But mostly it was to boost my ego and get some gratification for working so hard on the lectures, by having the students physically there in class as an audience.


I'm not sure whether Udacity and Khan Academy and iTunes University are really the solution to these problems. Clearly they are not a replacement for the conventional university experience -- you can't go to a frat party, or join a Finals Club, or make out in the library stacks while getting your degree from Online U. (At least not yet.)

But I think there are two important things that online universities bring to the table: (1) Broadening access to higher education, and (2) Leveraging technology to explore new approaches to learning.

The real question is whether broadening access ends up reinforcing the educational caste system: if you're not smart or rich enough to go to a "real university," you become one of those poor, second-class students with a certificate Online U. Would employers or graduate schools ever consider such a certificate, where everyone makes an A+, equivalent to an artium baccalaureus from the Ivy League school of your choice?

If not, is that because we truly believe that students are getting a better education sitting in a dusty classroom and having paid the proverbial $30,000 a year rather than doing the work online? This reminds me of my friends who have been through medical school, where the conventional wisdom is that doctors need to be trained using the classical methods (unbelievable amounts of rote memorization, soul-destroying clinical rotations and countless overnight shifts) because that's how it's been done for hundreds of years -- not because anybody thinks it yields better-trained doctors.

And I think universities have a long way to go towards embracing new technologies and new ways of teaching students. Sebastian makes a great point about the online AI class feeling more "intimate" to some students, in part because it really is a feeling of a one-on-one experience watching a video: you're not sitting in a big lecture hall surrounded by a bunch of other students, you're at home, in your PJs, drinking a beer and watching the video on your own laptop. A lot of this also has to do with Sebastian's teaching style, using a series of short quizzes that are auto-graded by the system. It is not just a lecture. For this reason I think that replacing live courses with videotaped lectures is not going far enough (and may in fact be detrimental).

Another benefit of the video delivery model is that you can replay it infinitely many times. Missed a point? Confused? Rewind and watch it again. What about questions? In large courses almost nobody asks questions, apart from the really smart students who should shut the hell up and not ask questions anyway. There are plenty of ways to deal with questions in an online course format, just not live, during a (limited time) lecture in which your question is likely going to annoy the rest of the class who almost certainly gets it already.


I'm going to close this little rant with a few caveats. It's fashionable to talk about "University 2.0" and How the Internet Changes Everything and disruptive technologies and all that. But a shallow, 18-minute video on the first 200 years of American History can't replace conventional coursework, deep reading, and essays. You can't tweet your way through college. Learning and teaching are hard work, and need to be taken seriously by both the student and educator.

Although expanding access to education is a great thing, it's simply not the case that everyone is smart enough to do well in any subject. For example, I'm terrible at math (which is why I'm a systems person, natch), and damn near failed to complete my CS theory course requirement at Berkeley as a result. Education should give everyone the opportunity to succeed, but the ultimate responsibility (and raw ability) comes down to the student.

Finally, it goes without saying that the most important experiences I ever had in college were outside of the classroom. I'm not just talking about staying up late and watching "Wayne's World" for the millionth time while drinking Zima, I'm talking about doing research, building things, learning from and being inspired by my fellow students. Making lectures obsolete is one thing; but I'm not sure there can ever be an online replacement for The College Experience writ large. Though 4Chan seems to be a pretty close approximation.


  1. The purpose of universities is not only to educate (there are public libraries) or do research (there are industrial labs), but also to serve as credentialing machine and headhunter.

    Most students at top universities are not there for the learning per se, but because the prestige of the school is their ticket to the top layers of the social pyramid. Status is everything for a lot of people.

    This is all obvious and I make no claims that such thoughts are a revelation of sorts...

  2. Completely agree on each point. The conventional system only filters out those students which fits in this education system. What about the others who can perform well as much as them when exposed to the correct environment and circumstances?
    What we need in the conventional universities, I think, is cooperative environment, instead of extreme competitive environment. This will help the average and below average students to come up. Universities are the place where all kinds of support and teaching should be given, such that a student can progress, and not just a filter which will only let those progress who fit into the current educational system.

  3. Totally agree with stochastix. I dare say there were the same worries when the printing press came out over 500 years ago. We are social animals.

  4. Online Universities are exciting because of its potential to impact millions. The threat to conventional education is what is immediately discernible but that will be dwarfed by the positive ripple effects, many of which we can't predict. Providing access to high quality education is the first step in shrinking the gap between the best and rest. We are still in the early phase and there may be many questions but I'm convinced this will change the face of education in India where we have a strange mix of eager students, expensive colleges and mediocre teaching.

  5. Traditional classrooms that require a students presence a majority of their academic career also diminishes the ability of the student to purchase the services of someone who does the work for them. One of the problems with Online Universities is that a student can hire someone to do everything for them, and not ever have to do the work themselves.

    In the long run these individuals are certainly weeded out in the workplace but it the effects dilute the job pool for newly graduated students looking for jobs.

    1. Dustin, I agree that online universities have a problem with attributing the work to the student, however, as we all know cheating is rampant at traditional universities as well.

    2. Here is how MITx will solve that problem. (Dr Anant Agarwal's interview)
      "In the very short term students will have to pledge an honor code that says that they’ll do the work honestly and things like that. In the medium term our plan is to work with testing companies that offer testing sites around the world, where they can do an identity check and they can also proctor tests and exams for us. For the longer term we have quite a few ideas, and I would say these are in the so-called R&D phase, in terms of how we can electronically check to see if the student is who they say they are, and this would use some combination of face recognition and other forms of technique, and also it could involve various forms of activity recognition."

      Topic for tons of PhD thesis...

  6. Nicely written, Matt. I think the potential change to the "traditional" university education is a side discussion on the main point - expanding access to education. In his talk, Sebastian never proposes to replace Stanford, he is simply making a personal choice to teach a wider range and breadth of students; adjusting the methods used in a traditional setting. If it changes teaching styles in the traditional setting, that is purely a side effect. The ultimate success will be determined by the students - if they can actually build a robot using their new AI skills, then it worked (!) - if they cannot, because of some missing ability or other resource, then it does not. If the focus is on people able to use their learning to get results, rather than replacing some Stanford certificate with an Udacity certificate, then that will be a clear and measurable improvement.

  7. "It seems to me that this is completely at odds with the idea of education."

    Reality disagrees. Some students are flat-out unwilling to learn; they just will not do the work. Some students are unwilling or unable to excel; they may learn the material to a passable/functional degree, but it is a struggle and the wiring of their brain means it always will be. Some students excel; thru hard work or natural affinity, they grok the material and master it.

    Yes, sometimes life intervenes, sometimes it takes longer to learn material than the allotted time, sometimes one's neurological configuration interferes or enhances the process. Maybe the education process can be adjusted to accommodate some of this. Fact is, however, there is also limited time to absorb material, and that on the whole there is ample opportunity to learn if only the student will make the effort to do so - how those limitations and opportunities are used factor into one's final grade in a very fair manner.

    Regardless of privilege or intelligence, the opportunities are there. It is one's own motivation which decides the final grade.

    (Recalls the poster depicting a box of fries captioned "not everyone gets to be an astronaut.")

    1. I agree that many students don't want to learn. I guess I am taking issue with the idea of grades as merit badges to indicate to the world (or future employers, I suppose) how well a student did in a course. There's two sides to education: Actually learning something, and being rated for your future place in society. My concern is that the combination of highly exclusive access to education coupled with strict grading has created a system where an exceedingly rarified type of person is able to "succeed" in that environment: those robotic, soulless bookworms who have never had an original or creative thought in their lives (you know exactly the kind of student I am talking about). If the purpose of education is to help people meet their potential, then we should rethink the idea that we're going to reinforce the "best of the best" while letting so many other talented and motivated students come out with mediocre grades.

      Your concern would be adequately met by a simple S/U grading system, which would set a reasonable filter for the total slackers.

  8. Where I think online lectures/learning is best is at the high end. Those subjects where MIT and CMU will cover but almost no one else has the resources. My area has like 10 colleges/universities, but NONE offer an algebraic topology course yet they all seem to offer some web programming stuff that I could easily figure out for myself. I've notices in CS that most of the programming languages courses are dross unless you happen to be at CMU, Penn, Princeton, Harvard, etc. Same for algorithms courses. It would be great if the web made the more advanced widely available.

    1. Actually, under the online delivery model, we probably only need 3 or 4 "universities" providing world-class educational materials; there's almost no reason to have a whole bevy of second-rate colleges just to serve everyone who couldn't get into those places. Everyone can have an "MIT education". Why not?

  9. I'm kind of stunned that, as a former CS educator, you would so casually claim to be generically "terrible at math", without realizing it's just a matter of putting in the necessary effort to learn it. You may never like it, and you may choose to do other things instead, but claiming to simply be (innately) bad at it strikes me as a stereotype-perpetuating cop-out.

    1. Oh, believe me, I put in an incredible effort, and continue to do so. I even went and taught myself control theory and queueing theory for my PhD, since I realized they would be useful tools for the kind of work I was doing. I know a lot of math, but after 30 years of introspection about my mathematical ability, I've decided that my brain simply doesn't work symbolically. Case in point: I can't play blackjack, since I simply cannot reliably add two numbers together mentally. I have to use a calculator for the most basic arithmetic. It drives me insane, but I don't think it's because I'm lazy. Just like I'll likely never be a good visual artist, but I'm good at music - everyone's brain works in different ways. Saying it's a just matter of "putting in the necessary effort to learn it" is denying a basic fact of human cognition.

    2. I think Matt's story is a great example of someone having the actual right to say they're "bad at math", rather than using it as a cop out: he's actually taken a great deal of advanced math, succeeded at it, and has been able to apply it in world class research and engineering work.

      I.e., if you're giving up on basic algebra, then yes it's a cop out. If you've actually attempted real and complex analysis, tried to read and understand machine learning papers, and *then* make a conclusion --then you can state that you are indeed "bad at math"

      For what it's worth, I'm decent at discrete mathematics, but found continuous mathematics hard (after four quarters of calculus, differential equations, several upper division courses, etc...)

      That's another example of what's wrong with the current educational system: unless you happen to go to a top academic high school, chances are you won't be exposed to discrete mathematics (group theory, combinatorics, proofs, etc...) before college, and will be discouraged from going into Computer Science/Natural Sciences/Engineering in college if you aren't a "star" in your high school calculus class (which is taught as if it's the hardest mathematics class possible -- with many students expected to fail -- rather than the merely the basis for all university mathematics). As a result, you end up missing out on many people who could have otherwise been engineers or even scientists: if it wasn't for California's excellent community college program (where special effort went into teaching Calculus and Calculus-based Physics for students transferring into schools like UCLA and Berkeley), this would have been me as well.

  10. Hi Matt! I've benefited greatly from the online free education that has recently been made available. I have enough degrees at this point so my purpose is just to further my own learning. One additional advantage I've noticed of these online videos is that you can watch just the topic you are interested in.

    I am curious what you (and others) think about the incentives problem. Giving stuff away for free is hardly a sustainable business model. This is a problem from the buyer's perspective as well (in this case ... me). For example, I would benefit immensely if you did a lecture series on Operating Systems. So we need to incentive you. Paying 5K for an online continuing ed class is going to be hard to do on my own dime (my impression is that most continuing ed courses in tech subjects are paid for employers). I'd certainly be willing to pay 20 bucks on my own. 100 dollars ... would require a bit more thought but perhaps. I'm guess the education startups in this space will have to figure out what makes sense. I only worry that once people (like me) have gotten a taste of free education, charging anything seems like too high of a price.

    1. The incentive issue is an important one, and it relates to the business model. At many universities, the institution's reputation and exclusivity easily trump education. The personal goals of individual teaching staff (career advancement, recognition by their peers in the field, power) must also be taken into account. The need for a dotcom startup to realize a return for its investors will, understandably, influence decisions regarding access and the structure of any site or experience.

  11. One big question we're asking right now is whether teaching these online courses is part of Stanford's educational mission. Teaching one of these online classes is a LOT of work, and that takes away from time spent teaching the students at Stanford. I think there's general consensus that neither hard answer (YES - students at Stanford and students outside Stanford receive the same attention, NO - we do not teach students outside Stanford) is the right one, but instead it's some middle point. It'll probably take us a few years to figure it out, and I have no doubt where we lie on the spectrum will vary over faculty as well as change over time.

    - Philip Levis

  12. This is not unlike Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the the professor stops giving grades during his rhetoric class. The results were (going from memory) that the students who were already producing "A" work, handed in better work, the B/C students' work started to slip and the D/F students stop coming to class all together.

    I'm taking matriculated-online classes now, but I've also studied some free classes, like Berkley's ai class where the projects (pacman in python specifically) are freely available and very well put together.

    Another benefit to these classes is that one can get more specific and offer more unique classes. I.e. everybody has an A.I. course, but probably only online could one offer a semester long special topic course that studied the a.i. of the roomba or something like this...

  13. I think what educators need to start asking themselves is what can I offer students in the classroom that they cannot get in an on-line education. If a student can download a lecture (often for free) on the same subject you are teaching, then why pay for an expensive education? Experiences in the classroom have to involve aspects a student cannot get anywhere else. This is not to imply that an on-line education is not an incredible and valuable experience. What I'm saying is that if traditional universities want to continue to compete with this growing market, then traditional universities need to offer something the student/consumer cannot get in an on-line program.

  14. Matt,

    So, here is a question for you. The bet we have made in higher education is that faculty research enhances the quality of pedagogy.
    Having done a PhD myself (you are were one of my editors; thanks!), I really don't think this is the case, at least for undergrad education. My guess is that the vast majority of resources spent on research are to enhance the prestige of the school. Students (and their parents) want to be in a higher prestige environment for signalling purposes. Did you feel that your time as a researcher enhanced your abilities as a teacher? Or do you think they were largely disjoint activities?

    Where I think education should really move is an online model for basic education and certification. And the elite university model for research and all the other aspects of the "university experience".

    1. I actually think doing research tends to make education stronger, so it's very true that we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don't see any reason why these need to be coupled in terms of the *location* where research and teaching happen. Universities should continue doing research as they have always done, but maybe we should radically change the way we teach students - and which students we teach.

    2. "Location" is a key word here. We are no longer limited to "either" on campus "or" off campus. If limited access to membership of an elite group is what is desired, than limiting access by keeping the number of spaces in a course below a limited number is a good idea. However, this is not about the campus, it is about education. Just as we should not be overly concerned about the future of the book, but rather about the future of reading, we should focus less on the future of the university and more on the future of learning.

      Mark McGuire

  15. With regard to CS, I agree with drawing a distinction between education and research. A point to note is that top research universities don't pay much importance to teaching anyway (the academic kiss of death if a tenure-track PI gets the best teaching award). When I took my algorithms 101, I was lucky to have a brilliant teacher, and I'm eternally grateful to her. On the other hand, I've taken advanced ML and NLP courses taught by awesome researchers, but found them excruciatingly painful to learn from - they were terrible at teaching but I realized they were really fantastic with one-on-one meetings about research projects and advice. In fact, there have been so many occasions when I've turned to resources such as to fully grasp a thing or two.

  16. When going from Bachelor to Master my dean was one of my profs and his rule of thumb was that every exam should be written in a way that 50% of the students fail. I can thank my mom for the good education on my behavior when I asked him politely why this kind of filtering is not solely part of Bachelor. Because if you made it that far the exams should only indicate if you are on a good way to become Master and not be obstacles. His answer was the reason why I left university and made a lot of money.

    I can only applaud to your article, but I would like to add that the fast development in some sciences creates a need for continuous education. So in fact we should see our universities as constant training centers to refresh our knowledge and be indicators to ourselves.

  17. Very nice article. I think a key point missed here is simply that the main part of education is the student's private assimilation and synthesis of various resources. The role of the teacher/course/lecture/important is just not important. I don't see much (non-social) educational value to universities in any form other than as a way to get access to a library (and its digital subscriptions) and have an expert in a field to answer questions sometimes. Sure, some people are more self-directed than others, but that's a trait that should translate into better job opportunities. I agree with the people who say that universities in the future will just be a kind of accrediting mechanism for education that students achieve independently through any and all means.

  18. Matt - Thanks for your thorough thoughts on the topics. Clearly all is in the early stage. Here in Dresden, actually THE hightech center of Europe, universities run on the old model of learning. WiFi not available around cafeterias or restricted. Signs in the mensa, "During eating no learning, and laptops".

    So the current status is pretty much directed into learning environments that I encountered back in the 70s and 80s.

    Yet imagine what learning storm would break loose when students, professors, and entrepreneurs get the idea of cross-boundary learning via #TelePresence cc @LockSchuppen

  19. I would say that there are two missing pieces that still need to be explored:

    (1) Peer Help
    (2) Portfolio approaches to "accreditation/certification" + Peer review

    (1 elaborated)
    You can only scale to hundreds of students and maintain quality if you start adopting approaches that have a multiplier effect. Teacher time is valuable. You described the winnowing approach you and many other professors adopted to discover the most capable students and give them extra attention. That's not going away and can in fact be leveraged to scale. The teacher helps the best students, who in turn help the other students either personally or also through scalable approaches like blog posts, tutorials and videos. A ecosystem approach to content and pyramid approach to tutoring where strong students help weaker students is still a better approach than helping a few and excluding the rest, which happens to be the current system.

    (2 elaborated)
    The portfolio/project approach is quickly becoming the norm in areas where online education has been most explored -> learning computer skills. Github, Dribbble and Forrst provide excellent models for displaying quality of work completed and even collaboration skills when the work involves communities around a project. Good designers and developers on those communities don't have resumes. Opportunities chase them down. Becoming the best and getting attention for it is just a matter of producing openly.

    1. I really like the idea of bringing the social/peer support element into this. This is critically important. Of course, in a conventional university setting students are competing for top grades and are prohibited from helping each other, so it's difficult to get any kind of ad hoc collaboration going.

  20. Hi Matt:

    Two thoughts on Sebastian's activity and your essay.

    First, re: grades. I always took the view that grades provided feedback. That if one was doing things right, you were conveying to students the quality of their work. The fact we had to provide a semester grade was, as you point out, not terribly useful except as a exclusivity activity. But conveying, clearly, that work was excellent or substandard (or somewhere in between) is important.

    Second, the idea of 3 or 4 universities. I suspect the number is higher -- say 20 to 30. Why? Because so many people learn differently. I remember, with great pain, a student from 30 years ago who was taking an intro computer science course because she felt she should understand computers. She was an artist. And, no matter how many ways I tried to explain it, she could not grok basic programming mechanisms such as for() loops. I always felt I failed her (she diligently slogged through the course, spent many extra hours, came to every office hour, schedule extra time). And that was compounded when I saw the first Macintoshes and a friend observed that her artist daughter had immediately taken to the mouse and visual interface to do great artwork on the Mac. I remembered the student and wondered if there wasn't a visual paradigm for computer science logic that would have helped her. I'll bet there is. Point of this story -- there are probably several different perspectives from which to teach a technology course (many more for, say, a history course) and we need to offer all of those perspectives if we're really going to let folks achieve their potential.

    Thanks for the fun essay!

    1. Thanks. I agree in the concept of grades as feedback, and if you look at what Thrun and Norvig did with the AI course you see students are getting constant feedback through mini-quizzes during each lecture. Feedback and evaluation are really important; the question is whether it's necessary to impose them in such a time-limited fashion.

      It's true that there can and should be vastly differing approaches to education - this applies not just to different styles (as in your artist student) but also to different cultural norms and educational styles around the world - so maybe I should have said "3 or 4 conventional engineering universities in the US".

  21. Wow, Matt, we really should talk !! At UniShared, we're sharing many of your thoughts ( Today's online education is "everybody learning alone", whereas UniShared aims at reproducing the University experience by connecting students with curious people sharing the same learning goals. Feel free to add me on Skype (ID clementdelangue).



  22. I must say that the failures mentioned really don't resonate with me at all in my experience (CS undergrad at large, public institution and now teach CS at a liberal arts school). Maybe they are mostly applicable to very highly ranked CS departments? As a result, I don't think it's correct to call these "failings of the conventional higher education model." There are TONS of colleges and universities out there where professors would never be able to get away with making a class hard on purpose to cut down on enrollment. And at many colleges, professors have long ago abandoned traditional lectures and instead keep classes exciting and dynamic, mixing in small group activities, etc.

    So, it seems like maybe the better solution to some of the failures is simply for professors to do a better job teaching! This could be about the lack of rewards for good teaching and the lack of punishment for bad teaching at top research institutions, but that doesn't excuse bad behavior like purposely making a class overly-hard. I've, sadly, heard too many professors says things like "The education model is clearly broken: I did a bad job teaching and no one seemed to care!"

    As for online lectures/learning, like any teaching style, it would be great for some and horrible for others.

  23. I wanted to throw out a learner's perspective (Matt, I took your OS class at Harvard a few years ago):

    It wasn't until CS161 that I felt like someone actually sat me down and tried to teach me programming - two years into my CS degree! I was allowed to float through the program with huge holes in my knowledge. Universities/professors are forced to make assumptions about student ability and teach the same material to the whole class. Remediation is crucial but totally neglected. If it weren't for TAs like Geoff, and one patient fellow student, I would have been utterly lost. Unfortunately, we only ever put bandaids on my faulty foundational knowledge. Khan Academy has an obvious solution for this problem. In math, for example, you can go all the way back to 2 + 2 and fix any problems along the way. Intuition and mastery are stressed over completion of a course (what does that even mean?). If you suck at something, you stop and go back. There's no point in moving forward without fixing the problems. But high-school/university courses only move in one direction. This is wrong. The but-community-is-good! counter-argument doesn't hold water with me. You can have community learning without all being at the same level, which is already true of university courses (top of the class versus bottom of the class). We'd just be acknowledging the obvious.

    Being there in person doesn't make *that* big a difference. If you want to be around smart, like-minded people, you can go out and find them. Co-working environments and community-based meetups can fulfill this function. Granted, probably with less sex. For some, that might be worth the money...

  24. Has no one ever given (or sat in on) a lecture where there was interaction between the students and the instructor that made the lecture better? Certainly not every class I teach is like that, but the few times each semester that is happens it feels magical. This cannot be replicated by video.

    I continue to be surprised at how few students ask questions during lecture, or even come to my office hours. Of course, I didn't do that either as an undergrad, but if I knew then what I know now, I definitely would have taken advantage of the opportunity. This, too, is something that video courses don't offer.

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  26. One can glean MUCH more out of a recorded lecture of a great professor than attending a lecture taught by a mediocre one. I recently completed Andrew Ng's free online machine learning course, and it was without a doubt the best course I've ever taken. Now I'm absolutely convinced that online learning can be extraordinarily effective, and has many advantages over the traditional lecture course. Obviously when it comes to cost-effectiveness, there is no contest. For a tiny fraction of what I've been paid to teach mathematics courses over the years (1-2 Mega dollars), Professor Ng, in one semester, was able to effectively teach several times the number of students who've attended my classes over two decades. And that free machine learning class can be truly life-changing for those who work through the class. For the knowledge imparted is immediately applicable to real-world problems and is in great demand. Taking Andrew Ng's machine learning class gave me a clear view of the future of education. And that future is here now!

  27. I'd like to make a point on rote memorization in medicine. Doctors need to wield an amount of information daily, that is unfathomable to "mere mortals". They are thinking about patients on a plane that lay people can't really appreciate even if Doctor House dumbs it down for them.

    The rote memorization prepares the mind for dealing with that kind of knowledge. I know I didn't like Chemistry or Biochemistry, and I forgot close to 90% of it over the years, but it made me think about the world in chemical terms and it makes be better at dealing with "chemical" information. It is a little like Andrew Ng talks about in his "Unsupervised Feature Learning" Lectures. You have to learn a bunch of apparantly useless stuff to prepare your brain for the real task.

    So, yes, rote Memorization is neccessary. As to the clinic hours... I don't know ;-)

  28. Hi Matt, we have created an open, non-profit calendar blog called One Change A Day which will feature 365 blog posts from around education and mooc worlds. This blog will also tell a story of how new ways of connecting with each other online are irreversibly changing education. It will also be published as a shared artifact of everyone’s experiences in print and digital calendar format at the end of the year.

    We would love to include your post, with your kind permission. The calendar blog is using the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License licence. Would this cause any conflicts with your current publishing permissions?

  29. Problem that I see with online education is quality of homework. Lectures taught by Prof Andrew Ng, Trun and Prof Widom were all great but quality of homeworks was really poor, infact as graduate student in a univ ranked mid 30's, I would have done better assignments and projects in machine learning class than online machine learning class (on-campus CS 229 although has same rigour). Another thing is that we dont have technology right now which can grade tens of thousands of students partially, you either get results or you dont'. Imagine a course like online algorithms, it would be naive to ask multiple choice questions to students or ask them to write pseudo code which a computer program can grade partially.

  30. The other issue regarding online courses is how one can be sure that the person turning in papers and taking exams is the same person upon whom you're conferring the degree. Even live exams and interviews won't help unless you can expertly scrutinize the proferred identification and determine that it matches the person carrying it (as we saw with the SAT scandal). However, it's unlikely that unscrupulous students could hire someone to sit through an entire course for them in a traditional classroom setting.

  31. Great Article about the Personality Development Courses. Please update more new its more useful to viewers.


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.