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 Catherine Armitage April 28, 2012

THE phenomenal success of a ”crazy idea” by a Stanford University professor, Sebastian Thrun, to open free online enrolments in his artificial intelligence course has pundits sounding the death knell for higher education as we know it.

In March last year, Thrun was at the TED annual ideas conference in California showing off the driverless car developed by Google’s secret projects division, Google X, of which he is the founder and head. There he heard Salman Khan talk about the Khan Academy, a ”global one-world classroom” of more than 3000 tutorial videos on YouTube with 144 million hits and counting. Thrun was electrified.

In July, he and fellow Stanford professor Peter Norvig invited all comers to enrol in their artificial intelligence course at the Californian university, which they would teach rather than just offer passive online study. They had 160,000 enrolments, nearly three times greater than total enrolments at Monash University, Australia’s largest.

Takers came from 195 countries. One was Michael Bewley, 27, a Sydney electrical engineer. He was preparing to start a PhD in robotics and machine learning at Sydney University.

The course, CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, which ran for 12 weeks last year, came at the right time. The fact it was being run by two of the biggest names in the field was a ”big drawcard”.

Each week Bewley watched one or two hours of lectures and did about six hours of further work. Lectures were segmented with pauses for students to attempt questions. Bewley says student support was taken very seriously.

 ”They took emails from everyone and then answered the hot topics,” he says. Among the Stanford initiative’s many predecessors, MIT’s decade-old OpenCourseWare, which provides full course materials online for people to work through, is probably best known.

Thrun differentiated Stanford’s free offering with enrolments, scheduled assignments and exams and a ”statement of accomplishment” on students’ completion.

A disclaimer states the class does not count towards any Stanford credit, grade or qualification. Thrun has resigned from teaching at Stanford (where he is still a part-time research professor). Smitten with the online ability to reach tens of thousands of students as opposed to just hundreds at university, he hopes never to teach a lecture-style class again. His new venture is Udacity, a 20-person free online education start-up funded by venture capital. More than 130,000 people signed up for the first two courses in January – building a robotic car and a web-search engine.

 He believes that in 50 years, there will be a small number of institutions – maybe only 10 – offering ”amazing educational products that will educate many millions of students”. He says ”as technology allows for scale, the number of providers will shrink”, noting this has happened in ”pretty much every industry”.

For PhD candidate Bewley, the Stanford online artificial intelligence course was ”fantastic background … I definitely plan to do more of them, both while I’m doing a PhD, and working full-time later on.”

Professor Derrick Armstrong, the deputy vice-chancellor (education) at the University of Sydney, says the Stanford-Udacity story is a ”fascinating development … which we at Sydney are watching closely”. ”However it is not the model which we are pursuing for the majority of our students because we understand the importance of face-to-face teaching,” he says.

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