Month: January 2012

“Being able to teach machine learning to tens of thousands of people is one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had,” says Stanford University computer science professor Andrew Ng.

Over 12k students received a 'statement of accomplishment' from Ng’s Fall 2011 course.

Over 100,000 students signed up for his free, fall 2011 course on machine learning. The impacts were huge. Over 12% of the students completed the course, and received a statement of accomplishment. Ng says he “heard many stories from students about how they’re using it at work, about how it’s inspired them to go back to school, and so on.” In contrast, Ng’s normal, for-credit course at Stanford, one of the most popular on campus, would enroll 350 students.

It’s part of a new revolution in higher education, and it’s serious learning. They deliver complete courses where students are not only watching web-based lectures, but also actively participating, doing exercises, and deeply learning the material. Students are expected to devote ~12 hours a week to the course, to read and watch course materials, complete assignments, and take quizzes and an exam. Online students did not receive one-on-one interaction with professors, the full content of lectures, or a Stanford degree — those who completed the course received a statement of accomplishment. Course materials include prerecorded lectures (with in-video quizzes) and demos, multiple-choice quiz assignments, automatically-checked programming exercises with an interactive workbench, midterm and final exams, a discussion forum, optional additional exercises with solutions, and pointers to readings and resources.


Online courses can be a great way to teach (and learn) new skills. They can be small and highly personal, or scale to thousands of students. As followup to my post about “What is an online course?”, let’s look behind the scenes at a few kinds of successful online classes, rich with video, feedback and large amounts of real-world work.

Structuring a course

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) currently has six 8 or 10 week online courses. The cost is $200 for self-guided courses, or $350 for instructor-led. The latter enroll 30-45 students. MoMA offers both knowledge classes, e.g., “Modern and Contemporary Art: 1945–1989,” and knowledge/skill courses, e.g., “Materials and Techniques of Postwar Abstract Painting,” in which students do hands-on work at home.

The instructor-led classes offer structure, socialization and personalization; whereas, the self-guided courses are about individual freedom, providing access to curated articles and video, with no live instructor facilitation nor social interaction with other students.

The studio-art offerings have weekly assignments. For example, students paint canvases using the  materials and techniques of iconic artists. They photograph their works in progress and finished, and upload them to discuss with other students and the instructor. Wendy Woon directs MoMA’s education department. She feels the 10-week timeframe has worked well for studio art, allowing enough time for a sense of trust and community to develop in the discussion forums so that students are willing to have “critical conversations” criticizing each other’s work.


“The debate about which is better, face-to-face learning or online learning is fast becoming obsolete,” says Jennifer Berghage, an instructional designer at Pennsylvania State University. The common goal is that “an online course should be, above all, engaging, so that the learner enjoys the learning and is able to not only assimilate it but retain it and apply it.”

Online courses are revolutionizing formal education, and have opened a new genre of outreach on cultural and scientific topics. These courses deliver a series of lessons to a web browser or mobile device, to be conveniently accessed anytime, anyplace. (more…)