A free online course at Stanford University on artificial intelligence, to be taught this fall by two leading experts from Silicon Valley, has attracted more than 58,000 students around the globe, writes John Markoff at the New York Times.
The experimental course is one of three being offered by the Stanford computer science department in an attempt to extend technology knowledge and skills beyond the elite campus to the entire world, the university is announcing on Tuesday.
Despite not getting Stanford grades or credit, the online students will receive a "statement of accomplishment" and will be ranked in comparison to the work of other online students.
The instructors are two of the world's best-known artificial intelligence experts – Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig.
The two scientists said they had been inspired by a nonprofit organization to provide video tutorials to students around the world on a variety of subjects via YouTube, established by Salman Khan, an M.I.T.-educated electrical engineer.
"The vision is: change the world by bringing education to places that can't be reached today," said Dr. Thrun.
A new wave of experimentation in education is underway thanks to the rapid increase in the availability of high-bandwidth Internet service, coupled with a wide array of interactive software.
The Khan Academy, for e
xample, which focuses on high school and middle school, "intentionally turns the relationship of the classroom and homework upside down". Students watch lectures at home, then work on problem sets in class, where the teacher can assist them one on one.
Thrun and Norvig said they were focused on going beyond early Internet education efforts, which frequently involved uploading online videos of lectures given by professors and did little to motivate students to do the coursework, writes Markoff.
"The three online courses will employ both streaming Internet video and interactive technologies for quizzes and grading, and have in the past been taught to smaller groups of Stanford students in campus lecture halls."
The other two courses involve – an introduction on database software, headed by Jennifer Widom, chairworman of the computer science department, and an introduction to machine learning, taught by Andrew Ng.
The researchers say they expect university classes to be made more widely accessible via the Internet, despite the three courses being described as an experiment.
"I personally would like to see the equivalent of a Stanford computer science degree on the Web," Dr. Ng said.
Dr. Widom said that having Stanford courses freely available could both assist and compete with other colleges and universities. A small college could supplement its offerings with the Stanford lectures, even if it does not have the faculty members to offer the particular course.
But could making the courses freely available prove to be a threat to the university? Dr. Thrun dismisses the idea.
"I'm much more interested in bringing Stanford to the world," he said. "I see the developing world having colossal educational needs."
Hal Abelson, a M.I.T. computer scientist who, in 2002, began to help develop earlier educational offerings, said that the new A.I. course just shows how rapidly the online world was evolving.
"The idea that you could put up open content at all was risky 10 years ago, and we decided to be very conservative," he said. "Now the question is how do you move into something that is more interactive and collaborative, and we will see lots and lots of models over the next four or five years."