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January 16, 2012

Online Courses

There have been video-taped lectures on the web for the past decade since the arrival of video-sharing sites. Early on, I watched a number of them. Some were computer science lectures from the University of Washington Professional Master Program, sponsored by Microsoft, like Data Mining.

However, for the most part, I avoided these video-based lectures or simply played them in the background (learning via osmosis). My issues with video lectures were manifold:

  1. Time. Video lectures consume a considerable amount of time, one to three hours.
  2. Not designed for online consumption. The video is a taping of an in-person lecture. Often times, relevant material in the blackboard or notes slide are not even visible.
  3. Not self-contained. Additional readings are required.

Instead, I would read through lecture presentation and notes for a course from MIT’s OpenCourseWare and other university programs. However, the retention of terminology and information from reading slides is weak. Slides typically have little content and explanation—just bullet points and diagrams, and the amount of time spent reviewing the presentation is a small fraction of the time watching a lecture—not enough to think deeply about a topic. Lecture notes can help, but they are often dry and usually not available.

Led by Andrew Ng, Professors at Stanford in fall 2011 launched three unofficial non-credit courses over the fall directed at the worldwide online audience. These also included regular homework and exams. About a hundred thousand students signed up for each course with over ten thousand fully completing all the requirements .

I took part in all three and found them to be high quality and as effective as regular courses. The Stanford online course lectures have become my sole hobby.

  1. Streamlined videos. Videos are delivered in small chunks with dead time edited out and an option for accelerated viewing.
  2. Optimized for online. Professors speak directly to the camera. Lecture notes are clearly viewable on top a white background instead of a distant blackboard.
  3. Course progress. Viewed videos and completed homeworks are marked.
  4. Community forums. Students communicate with each other and with the course staff.

The courses are taught by prominent professors in their field. Peter Norvig, Google director of R&D and author of AI: A Modern Approach used by 95% of students, teaches AI alongside Sebastien Thrun, an expert in robotics. The courses are somewhat less rigorous than the official Stanford classes and come complete with a certificate of accomplishment. In the AI class, I received congratulatory mail for perfect homework scores and towards the end an invitation to job placement program for the top 1000 students out of about an estimated 36,000 students. I easily obtained a perfect score on ML and DB class assignments.

Stanford initiated other less optimized offerings in previous years such as Stanford Education Everywhere (SEE) and Stanford’s Class X, where are videotaped lectures of courses targeted to Stanford’s professional program: The courses are still available for viewing. In addition to the three Stanford courses earlier, I watched through Introduction to Robotics, Program Analysis and Optimization, iPhone Application Development.

There are currently sixteen Stanford course planned for the winter quarter using the same interactive system in computer science, entrepreneurship, engineering and medicine, of which I plan to take as many as possible.

MITX is an upcoming online course program by MIT along the same vein, extending beyond the OpenCourseWare program.


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