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The Education Revolution: Coursera's co-founder speaks

Joseph Rickert reports from last weekend's ACM Data Mining Camp in San Jose. Andre Ng, co-founder of Coursera, Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and Associate Professor with the University’s Computer Science department gave the keynote address at the ACM’s Data Mining Camp held at the PayPal/eBay town hall this past Saturday. Andrew is on a mission. He is out to change the world by bringing relevant, high-quality education to anyone with an internet connection. Coursera has relationships with 33 universities and is currently offering 198 college level courses on subjects as diverse as Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, R and Machine Learning. Although quality education via distance learning is hardly new, and MIT has been freely offering high-quality, college courses through its internet-based, OpenCourseware platform for over ten years, Coursera has broken new ground by offering an interactive learning experience on a massive scale. Recently over 300,000 students enrolled in the machine learning course. What makes this possible is the application of software development methodology, hard core programming and machine learning techniques to the challenges of developing assignments, grading homework exercises and building online communities. Tests and homework exercises go through unit testing and automatic proof checking, complex regular expressions evaluate free-form text, and every click from every student is captured and analyzed in much the same way that internet companies such as google and eBay capture information about their website visitors. Coursera is already analyzing some of this data to improve there product. For example, while reviewing answers to a machine learning assignment, Andrew noticed that 2,000 users submitted identical wrong answers to a programming assignment. A k-means clustering analysis revealed that the student errors originated with switching two lines of code in a particular algorithm. This information was used to improve the underlying lecture associated with the assignment. The large numbers of students have had a positive effect on building communities. Andrew pointed out that it is easier to build a community with 100,000 students than with 100 students. With large numbers there is a high probability that any time of the day or night there will be someone else awake and thinking about the same issues you are. During the most recent machine learning class the average time to get a response to a question posted on the bulletin board was 22 minutes.  Andrew also noted that several study groups have spontaneously organized. The large numbers of students also make it possible for Coursera to leverage crowd sourcing techniques. Using guidelines provided by course instructors, experiments with students grading each other have turned out well. Andrew took several questions from the audience, some directly challenging the model of free, open source education. When asked if Coursera was competing with universities, Andrew replied that course content is only part of the value a student gets from attending classes at Stanford: students get more value from high quality classroom interaction and the attention of engaged faculty. Andrew’s talk was inspiring. The classroom / lecture model for university education has not changed much from the time of Peter Abelard and Coursera could be the game changer. But even more importantly, the Coursera vision could drive a new enlightenment. Andrew and Coursera are taking the high ground: “A high quality education is a fundamental human right”.

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More Stories By David Smith

David Smith is Vice President of Marketing and Community at Revolution Analytics. He has a long history with the R and statistics communities. After graduating with a degree in Statistics from the University of Adelaide, South Australia, he spent four years researching statistical methodology at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, where he also developed a number of packages for the S-PLUS statistical modeling environment. He continued his association with S-PLUS at Insightful (now TIBCO Spotfire) overseeing the product management of S-PLUS and other statistical and data mining products.<

David smith is the co-author (with Bill Venables) of the popular tutorial manual, An Introduction to R, and one of the originating developers of the ESS: Emacs Speaks Statistics project. Today, he leads marketing for REvolution R, supports R communities worldwide, and is responsible for the Revolutions blog. Prior to joining Revolution Analytics, he served as vice president of product management at Zynchros, Inc. Follow him on twitter at @RevoDavid