Machine Learning (Theory)

9/28/2011

Somebody’s Eating Your Lunch

Tags: CS,Online,Teaching jl@ 1:36 pm

Since we last discussed the other online learning, Stanford has very visibly started pushing mass teaching in AI, Machine Learning, and Databases. In retrospect, it’s not too surprising that the next step up in serious online teaching experiments are occurring at the computer science department of a university embedded in the land of startups. Numbers on the order of 100000 are quite significant—similar in scale to the number of computer science undergraduate students/year in the US. Although these populations surely differ, the fact that they could overlap is worth considering for the future.

It’s too soon to say how successful these classes will be and there are many easy criticisms to make:

  1. Registration != Learning … but if only 1/10th complete these classes, the scale of teaching still surpasses the scale of any traditional process.
  2. 1st year excitement != nth year routine … but if only 1/10th take future classes, the scale of teaching still surpasses the scale of any traditional process.
  3. Hello, cheating … but teaching is much harder than testing in general, and we already have recognized systems for mass testing.
  4. Online misses out … sure, but for students not enrolled in a high quality university program, this is simply not a relevant comparison. There are also benefits to being online as well, as your time might be better focused. Anecdotally, at Caltech, they let us take two classes at the same time, which I did a few times. Typically, I had a better grade in the class that I skipped as the instructor had to go through things rather slowly.
  5. Where’s the beef? The hard nosed will want to know how to make money, which is always a concern. But, a decent expectation is that if you first figure out how to create value, you’ll find some way to make money. And, if you first wait until it’s clear how to make money, you won’t make any.

My belief is that this project will pan out, with allowances for the expected inevitable adjustments that you learn to make from experience. I think the critics miss an understanding of what’s possible and what motivates people.

The prospect of teaching 1 student means you might review some notes. The prospect of teaching ~10 students means you prepare some slides. The prospect of teaching ~100 students means you polish your slides well, trying to anticipate questions, and hopefully drawing on experience from previous presentations. I’ve never directly taught ~1000 students, but at that scale you must try very hard to make the presentation perfect, including serious testing with dry runs. 105 students must make getting out of bed in the morning quite easy.

Stanford has a significant first-mover advantage amongst top research universities, but it’s easy to imagine a few other (but not many) universities operating at a similar scale. Those that have the foresight to start a serious online teaching program soon will have a chance of being among the few. For other research universities, we can expect boutique traditional classes to continue for some time. These boutique classes may have some significant social value, because it’s easy to imagine that the few megaclasses miss important things in developing research areas. And for everyone working at teaching universities, someone is eating your lunch.

(Cross posted at CACM.)

7 Comments to “Somebody’s Eating Your Lunch”
  1. Mohamad Tarifi says:

    Excellent post!

  2. Rob Renaud says:

    What are the top criticisms? To me, the idea seems simply wonderful.

  3. Arun Iyer says:

    I like this line a lot -
    “The hard nosed will want to know how to make money, which is always a concern. But, a decent expectation is that if you first figure out how to create value, you’ll find some way to make money. And, if you first wait until it’s clear how to make money, you won’t make any.”

    Someone should make a poster out of this and stick it all over the place.

  4. Peter Gerdes says:

    I regularly would take courses and never see the instructor at caltech. Did much better than those who went to the course because I then had time to sleep and do my work.

    However, the benefits of being at caltech at least is the other students not the instructors. At some level the students are motivated/able enough to learn if you place them in the correct social enviornment.

  5. [...] Learning researcher John Langford presents some rebuttals to common criticisms of online courses in the context of the teaching experiment being run by the [...]

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