Mar 102013

A while back I wrote about free online courses (on more than one occasion). Back then I had somehow managed to find the time to go through not one, but three Stanford courses simultaneously. All three were of very high quality, in many respects.

Around the turn of the century some universities had started making their lectures available to the general public. This was a reasonable and predictable next-step from merely video taping the lectures for the on-campus (paying) students who had missed any or, well, just to make lectures more accessible. The cost of filming and editing these lectures are uncured once, so why not capitalize on it and make them available world-wide? It’d seem that this is how things started, with the possible hope of growing this into an e-learning branch that could make the university money, or, failing that, at least prove a good promotional campaign for more studentship.

The problem with this approach, from the student’s point of view, is that the lecture itself typically assumes in-person attendance. Even with the knowledge of the possibility of someone watching the replay having not personally attended, it was targeted to on-campus students who could meet with TAs or colleagues to get notes and other materials they missed. Also, any copyrighted materials were completely stripped away from these videos, to avoid any legal complications. (This was annoying in a sociology class that I was taking because all the social experiment videos were removed from the lectures.)

Enter Stanford and Coursera. The vision was free education primarily for the online viewer, wherever they may be. This meant a different format altogether. The presenter isn’t just walking about, talking to an audience of coming-and-going students (which I find very distracting even when watching at home,) rather they are prepared with material and equipment to explain theory and, where applicable, demo the concepts with experiments or walk-through. All of which is clear and legible. Coursera, an off-shoot of Stanford took this to the next logical step: a dedicated education platform for generation-next. I do not doubt that they could (if they already don’t) commercialize the platform by licensing to universities to cater for on-campus and online students alike.

As the offerings started to grow, some sites started aggregating online and free education sites. One particular site that was brought to my attention by a member of their team is, which makes hundreds of courses reachable by listing, searching and creating custom course lists with the ability to track one’s progress as well. They also include reputable schools including Stanford, Yale and Harvard, among others. Coursera too has managed to grow their portfolio of subjects greatly as well. From a mere handful at the time of their start to possibly hundreds as I write.

A trait that makes stand out is perhaps that they aggregate not just video lectures, but audio-only and text-only as well, which are differentiated by icons next to each. For someone interested in studying certain subject from reading notes, rather than by taking notes, text-only courses might be more suitable. For those who like to listen while working out or commuting, audio-only might be better suited, as the lecturer presumably would not refer to visual objects that the listener can’t see.

The state of online, free, e-learning resources is an embarrassment of riches. The three Stanford courses that I took, which admittedly required some extra reading and doing homework, took anywhere between 20 to 25 hours/week, including watching the lectures. With subjects spanning art, music and creative writing, to quantum physics and molecular biology, available from numerous universities, in some cases in multiple languages, taught by actual teaching professors, reviewing and choosing which to view (even casually and as a matter of interest) is time consuming (albeit, fun). Not to mention committing and actually putting in the effort and hours necessary to complete them.

It is truly amazing time this one we live in. No longer do we have to wonder about (or regret) the courses we didn’t (or couldn’t) take at school. We can, with the help of technology, visit these virtual classrooms to the content of our hearts. Even a casual, electronic attendance of 30-45 minutes a day can be very rewarding and, hopefully, fun.

Nov 182011

A while back I wrote about Stanford’s online DB course. Many of my friends who expressed interest unfortunately couldn’t afford the time to invest in an online course. Luckily, that wasn’t their last chance. But before I get to the upcoming courses, let me reflect on online courses in general and why Stanford, deservedly, got a wide coverage and following.

Online Lectures

I’ve been watching (and listening) to university lectures since circa 2004. Back then there weren’t too many available. In 2005 I discovered UC Berkeley’s WebCasts. These were RealVideo lectures from early 2000s on many hard sciences and some humanities. The quality of the courses were as expected high. The main issues were that RealVideo only allowed streaming, so there was no way of downloading. Besides that, the video was in rather low-resolution, low-quality and recorded from a single angle and reading the blackboard was unnecessary strain on the eye. Back in 2006 I wrote a python script using MPlayer to parse the pages, play the video with MPlayer and dump the resultant stream to files. The main issue with this was that a single hiccup and the lecture had to be downloaded from start again. Using this slow and painful method I downloaded dozens of courses and filled about 250GB worth of media and shared to colleagues and friends. Berkeley improved this by introducing Mp4 downloadable links in higher resolution starting in 2009 (I think) and now moved completely to iTunes and YouTube as platforms.

During that time I discovered MIT and Yale but neither could equal Berkeley in the number of courses or the topics. Berkeley’s Physics for Future Presidents is perhaps the best example that I can think of to show off what Berkeley had to offer. In 2008/2009 Stanford’s Leonard Susskind’s Modern Physics was available online, which is another top-notch lecture series.

As MIT, Yale, Harvard and Princeton made available more courses, I discovered Academic Earth, which I think at this point is perhaps the single best site for high-quality, diverse and highly usable video lectures.

Why University Lectures?

The process of learning isn’t linear nor comes in one flavor. Different people have different preferences on how they rather best learn or study something. Indeed, different topics might be best learnt in dissimilar methods. From books, tutorials, hands-on examples to demonstrations, labs and homework assignments. But university lectures place one’s mind into the classroom state. With all the students, rigor in subject treatment, questions from students, they all contribute to the state of mind that is very important in taking the information seriously. The lectures are also divided in such a manner that’s expected to be reasonably-paced. There are also review sessions and sometimes quizzes.

At this time I’m enjoying Justice on political philosophy and morality (by Michael Sandel of Harvard) and Physics I: Classical Mechanics (by Walter Lewin of MIT) on Academic Earth, besides Stanford’s DB, ML and AI courses, of course.

With tutorials, books and other forms of teaching most of the above is lost. Not to mention the caliber of the teachers in these universities are expectedly quite high.

The Stanford Model

Stanford introduced 3 “experimental” online courses in Database, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence in the Fall of 2011 (it’s mid-term exam week as I write this). Besides the fact that these courses are highly sought-after, the Artificial Intelligence course is taught by Google rock-star Sebastian Thrun who’s behind the Driverless Google car (video featuring Prof. Thrun).

Unlike all other online courses, Stanford’s approach was more course-like and less of a video recording of a lecture, as all others are. MIT might offer notes, slides and transcripts, but Stanford’s courses have forums where TA’s and teachers participate, sidecasts where teachers do online video chat with students, online and interactive quizzes that pop-up during the lectures, assignments and exams with automated grading. In addition, at the end of a course, the teacher will give a signed statement of accomplishment to the students who participated. This is in addition to prerequisite and preparatory lectures, external resource links, books and reading materials, transcripts and translations, downloadable video and lecture slides.

So there is not only much more interactivity with thousands of other students with study groups gathering in person and online, but also there is interactivity with the teachers and with online tests with immediate feed-back. These features make the courses much more than the sum of its parts. They exploit the internet and multimedia to their true potential and deliver a remarkable package for a globally available learning experience.

For those who can’t, or don’t want to, take up the assignments and exams, they can choose the Basic track. The course material is promised to be available to all during and after the end of the courses.

More Courses!

With the success that the DB, ML and AI classes saw, with well over 300,000 students enrolled in total, it’s no surprise that they are expanding this to other subjects as well.

These courses will start in January or February 2012. I expect they will announce others, most probably Database and (prof. Widom announced that the course will be available next fall) Artificial Intelligence, or so I hope.

Final Thoughts

Needless to say, Stanford’s online courses is a very welcome project and one that will change the face of education, e-learning and especially distance learning and autodidactism by raising the bar and setting new standards. US universities aren’t the only player here. Perhaps the best example is India’s National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) which already has hundreds of courses and plans to expand to over a thousand. Their Artificial Intelligence course, by prof. P. Dasgupta, is highly acclaimed. From the other end of the spectrum there is Khan Academy, which is a not-for-profit educational organization led by a very enthusiastic and charismatic figure, Salman Khan, who’s behind the 2700+ videos on most all topics. Khan Academy also has practice problems with scoring method and graphs tracking progress over time and in each subject.

Education and learning in general has never been this accessible before. With the internet, Wikipedia, free books and video tutorials and university lectures available to anyone with an internet connection. We no longer have an excuse for ignorance but our lack of will. Not looking up things we don’t know, suspect to know correctly or completely or want to learn more about, is practically inexcusable. Of course with all that information and availability also comes a sizable amount of chaff that one must weed-out from wheat. The signal-to-noise ration can be quite disappointing on some topics. But at least that can be done faster and much easier than it was only a decade or two ago, and not searching for criticism or opponents to get a more balanced picture is as inexcusable as not looking up in the first place. At least now one can also reach experts and hear what they have to say. We can even attend the best universities from the comfort of our armchairs.

I can’t help but wonder if the next generation will look at physically attending lectures as this generation does to putting pen to paper.

Oct 042011

Stanford is giving the world an opportunity to participate in an Introduction to Databases course. There are many online courses, from MIT to UCBerkeley to Yale and Harvard, but this one a bit different. For a start it’s going to be live and not a podcast. Participants will get assignments, quizes and, yes, exams! All of which will be evaluated. There is even a forum and the staff/TAs will participate and the highest voted questions will get responded to by the teacher.

There are no credits or diplomas, but at the end of the course a statement of accomplishment and a grade relative to others will be given. The website is very usable and the videos even have 1.2x and 1.5x versions for the impatient or busy.

The courses start on October 10 through December 12. There are already preview videos that one can wet their appetite with. Enrollment is ongoing and as of October 3rd there are over 42,000 students enrolled. According to an introduce-yourself forum thread, there is a 15 year old and a 71 year old!

If you’ve always wanted to get some solid introduction to databases but didn’t have a chance, Professor Jennifer Widom has just given you one.

Update: Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence courses are also available simultaneously.

(If you know of similar live courses, please share them in the comments.)

Jul 042011

The BBC just released 60 years worth of the Reith Lectures. Since 1948, each year (except ’77 and ’92) a prominent speaker is invited to deliver a series of lectures on a relevant and debated topic of the time. The first year’s lecturer was no other than Bertrand Russel who gave 6 lectures on Authority and the Individual.

The series isn’t unlike the Messenger Lectures of Cornell University. Albeit, the latter apparently doesn’t make the lectures publicly available. That is, save of the great lectures delivered by Richard Feynman in 1964 which Microsoft restored to showcase their Silverlight technology and its video features. Project Tuva, as Microsoft calls it, refers to Feynman’s and, his longtime friend, Ralph Leighton‘s attempt to travel to Tuva. The project which the two friends dubbed Tuva or Bust is documented in Ralph’s book by the same name.

There is a wealth of historic and once-in-a-lifetime lectures and public appearances by eminent figures archived away collecting dust. BBC isn’t the first to make freely available what could only be useful and of value the more it proliferates. The topics of the 20th century are by and large the topics of the 21st. This isn’t simply because our most pressing issues have backdrops in the previous century, not just, but also because most issues are fundamentally the same.

Even in the case of Project Tuva, where a commercial institution chose to promote and advertise its product by restoring and releasing to public what could otherwise be buried by time and misc discarded tapes and equipment. For it isn’t at all important how the message is conveyed, so long that it reaches our ears and minds. More and more institutions, organizations and governments should sponsor similar efforts. In fact, donations to start a new web-based series should be well worth the effort. What used to be highly costly to make publicly available in the past, now costs only fractions of cents per person to download from across the globe. Indeed, utilizing peer-based distributed networks such as BitTorrent, the cost could drop to near zero (on average.) TED is perhaps the best example of a similar model, although they rent a real venue with a rather elaborate and fancy stage. At TED the social aspect is as important as the ideas shared, which is enjoyed by a lucky (and wealthy) few. But the more the better.

The Reith Lectures are available for download some including transcripts as well. The list features names from all fields. Most notably are physicist Robert Oppenheimer (1953,) geneticist Steve Jones (1993,) neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran (2003,) and astronomer Martin Rees (2010.) I’m very happy to report that it reads ‘Indefinitely’ next to the availability tag.

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