Free computer science courses, new teaching technology reinvent online education

August 17, 2011 By Jamie Beckett
Computer Science professor Andrew Ng uses tablet-recording technology he developed to instantly display notes for his interactive video lecture.

Stanford Engineering professors are offering three of the school’s most popular computer science courses for free online this fall, and at the same time launching an experiment that could transform the way online education is delivered.

The professors are taking technologies designed to enhance learning for Stanford and extending them to a broad online audience. They are delivering lectures as short, interactive video clips that allow students to progress at their own pace through course materials. They are offering live quizzes with instant feedback.  And they are testing new technologies that allow students to rank questions that should be posed to the instructors.

The professors also hope to extend the benefits of Stanford-style education to those who lack access.

“Both in the United States and elsewhere, many people simply do not have access to a high-quality education.  By putting out this initial set of courses, we hope to teach some of the latest computing technologies to anyone who wants to learn it – for free,” said Andrew Ng, an associate professor of who is teaching a new online machine learning course.

The three courses – Machine Learning, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Introduction to Databases – cover material that forms the basis of some of the most prevalent technologies today, from online shopping to web search and robotics.

“By opening up education, we hope to give more learning, job and advancement opportunities to anyone who wants them,” said Computer Science Department Chair Jennifer Widom, who is teaching the database course.

Demand has been enormous. Already more than 58,000 people have expressed interest in the artificial intelligence course taught by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor of computer science and a Google Fellow, and Google Director of Research Peter Norvig.

“The time is right for this – technology has progressed, connectivity has progressed and video has progressed,” Thrun said. “It’s thrilling to be able to take Stanford education out into the world to people who can’t afford it or wouldn’t have access.”

Formal registration for the classes kicks off today; classes start on Oct. 10 and extend through December. All three are being offered in partnership with the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), which brings more than 40 years of distance-learning expertise to the table.  Both SCPD students and regular Stanford students, as well as the general public, will have access to the new online learning tools.

Students in the free courses are expected to read course materials, complete assignments and take quizzes and an exam. Thrun said online students should expect to devote at least 12 hours a week to the course, just as Stanford students do. What online students won’t receive, however, is one-on-one interaction with professors, the full content of lectures – or a Stanford degree.

The online courses build on recent innovations by Stanford to increase interaction with students. These include ClassX, a video processing platform that facilitates lecture recording; CourseWare, an online course hosting site with social networking features; and OpenClassroom, a web platform designed to share Stanford lectures freely with the world.

In January 2010, computer science Professor Daphne Koller piloted the idea of shifting classroom time from lectures – which are largely passive activities for students – to more engaging activities. She recorded lectures as short videos for students to watch online and used class time to solve problems, host guest lecturers from the technology industry and review material students found difficult.

“The idea was to improve both the classroom experience and the online experience,” she said.

She incorporated questions and quizzes into the videos to keep students thinking about the material and help them learn more effectively.

 “One of the disadvantages of traditional instruction is how long it takes to get feedback on your work,” said Ng. “If you submit homework and get a graded version back a week later, you may already have forgotten much of what you did.  With technologies that give you immediate feedback, a student can immediately determine what they do and don’t understand, and more efficiently focus their efforts.”

Explore further: Learning: No longer a textbook case

Related Stories

Learning: No longer a textbook case

May 2, 2011

Switching from rigid, linear textbooks to technology such as iPads alone won’t boost student performance – so a team of Wake Forest researchers has turned the classroom upside down, allowing students to tailor each ...

Useless online student quizzes

January 20, 2010

Online quizzes are not helping students learn their subject, according to a study just published in the International Journal of Information and Operations Management Education.

Recommended for you

Metacognition training boosts gen chem exam scores

October 20, 2017

It's a lesson in scholastic humility: You waltz into an exam, confident that you've got a good enough grip on the class material to swing an 80 percent or so, maybe a 90 if some of the questions go your way.

Scientists see order in complex patterns of river deltas

October 19, 2017

River deltas, with their intricate networks of waterways, coastal barrier islands, wetlands and estuaries, often appear to have been formed by random processes, but scientists at the University of California, Irvine and other ...

Six degrees of separation: Why it is a small world after all

October 19, 2017

It's a small world after all - and now science has explained why. A study conducted by the University of Leicester and KU Leuven, Belgium, examined how small worlds emerge spontaneously in all kinds of networks, including ...

Ancient DNA offers new view on saber-toothed cats' past

October 19, 2017

Researchers who've analyzed the complete mitochondrial genomes from ancient samples representing two species of saber-toothed cats have a new take on the animals' history over the last 50,000 years. The data suggest that ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.4 / 5 (5) Aug 17, 2011
She recorded lectures as short videos for students to watch online and used class time to solve problems, host guest lecturers from the technology industry and review material students found difficult

this is how teaching should have always been ever since tape recorders and video recorders were first invented.

The idea of professors giving the same (or similar) lecture over and over again every year is absurd.

Lecture should be outside the class room. Class room should be for TEACHING specific problem areas and "problem solving" and "guided" critical thinking related to the material.

It's a shame the american classroom model is so poor compared to real world application of knowledge.
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 17, 2011
People are only just now beginning to comprehend the basic applications of information technology that is already a damn century old.

Wonder what will happen when we REALLY understand the applications of modern computers and smartphones? Somekind of damn revolution!

It's sad how people still do things the same old way, even when technology has advanced so much in the past several decades.

Most people's jobs are already obsolete, but they and their employers are so old fashioned and simple minded they don't realize it yet, haven't given it much thought, etc.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.