The groundbreaking Silicon Valley computer scientist who opened up elite Stanford University courses free to the public wants to help create similar buzz around online learning at the University of Alberta.
Sebastian Thrun, now a vice-president of Google, shook up the world of higher education last year when 160,000 people signed up for his free online course at Stanford on artificial intelligence and this week he signed a first-in-Canada agreement with the U of A.
Thrun wants to work with U of A researchers in computer science to design the best way to deliver the courses and devise better methods to teach online in this new era of MOOCs – massive open online courses.
Under the fledgling partnership, the U of A will offer free, online courses, possibly this fall, with support from Thrun’s company, Udacity.
The agreement gives the U of A an important leg up into the brand new, fast-developing era of MOOCs that Thrun helped start with his call to “democratize” education, said acting provost Martin Ferguson-Pell.
Two other Canadian universities (University of Toronto and University of British Columbia) have signed agreements with another leading company, Coursera, to put courses online for the public – but not for university credit.
The U of A’s agreement with Udacity is distinctive both for the research component and also the immediate goal of putting courses online that could also be taken for credit across the globe, said Ferguson-Pell, adding there are a lot of issues to be worked out, including how to handle possibly massive online enrolment.
Thrun, who visited the U of A this week to discuss his research into self-driving cars, said he’s keen to work with the U of A because of the shared interest in “radical innovation in online education” and the strong reputation of the researchers in the Machine Learning Institute on campus, one of the top five in the world and a specialized branch of computer science.
“Udacity is excited to build on U of A’s expertise in online testing and education,” Thrun said in a news release.
The U of A’s connection to Thrun came through Jonathan Schaeffer, the new dean of science, who also works in artificial intelligence and has known the former Stanford professor for years, Ferguson-Pell said. He convinced Thrun to visit the U of A and the partnership was made, he said.
Schaeffer says he’s “very excited” to take the faculty of science into the era of MOOCs and hopes to have a course or two ready to launch on the Udacity website by September 2013, although there are many issues to work out.
For instance, those who want to take the course for university credit and who want to take part in the classroom teaching will have to pay some kind of fee, as opposed to those doing the course online, he said.
“Thrun is committed to the democratization of education,” he stressed.
More and better online learning will improve classroom experience, not replace it, Schaeffer said.
“Right now students sit and listen to a professor lecture for an hour, and the discussions and problem solving all happen outside the classroom. We want to flip those classes, so the discussion and problem solving happens with the professor in the classroom time.
“So for the students who come to class, the experience will be richer. Students perform better on tests with this model and learn more when the classes are ‘flipped.’ “
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of research opportunities for experts in “machine learning,” a special branch of computer studies that involves using large amounts of data to find useful patterns. For instance, credit card companies use machine-learning techniques to track spending habits and to send a signal when something unusual turns up on a credit card.
So for online learning, Schaeffer says he can imagine machine-learning researchers devising a quiet “computer mentor” – a program that would track a student’s progress, send a signal when the student needs extra help or is not understanding a concept, or direct the student where to get help.
The goal of MOOCs, enabled in recent years by new computer technology, is to “expand the outreach of the university,” far beyond campus and the province to the globe, Ferguson-Pell said. If all goes well, success in this new trend will also build the university’s reputation abroad, he added.