Stanford's latest global virtual classroom may have more than 100,000 students

Stanford University's free online 'Introduction to Artificial Intelligence' course this fall may be the largest global classroom ever. Is this just the beginning of large, open virtual learning experiences?

Stanford University has launched a new experiment in distributed education, offering a 101-level technology course free and online to to students worldwide this fall.  The course, "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence," will be taught by two leading thinkers in the AI field, Sebastian Thrun, a professor at Stanford, and Peter Norvig, director of research at Google.

At the time of this post, more than 130,000 people signed up fro the online course, scheduled to start on October 10th and last until December 16th. Of course, it's unknown how many will follow through and register and attend. Details on the course, including a syllabus is available here. The curriculum draws from the same materials, assignments, and exams used in Stanford's introductory Artificial Intelligence course.

As the course description defines it, Artificial Intelligence is the science of making computer software that reasons about the world around it. Humanoid robots, Google Goggles, self-driving cars, even software that suggests music you might like to hear are all examples of AI. Students will learn how to create this software in this class, and non-Stanford students will receive a "statement of accomplishment" from the instructors upon completion.

How will this course be effectively delivered, and what does this portend for the future of higher education and learning? Writing at the Singularity Hub, Aaron Saenz observes the course will be putting its material to practical applications, employing AI to manage such a huge global classroom:

"If Norvig and Thrun’s expertise makes signing up for this course enticing, it’s also the only thing that makes actually teaching the course possible. There’s simply no way two human beings (or even twenty if you gave them a large staff of assistants) could manage 100,000+ students. Instead, a company founded by Thrun, Know Labs, will help automate every stage of the class. Questions will be submitted and then ranked to see which will be answered in class. Exercises will be available to help teach concepts online. Homework will be submitted and likely graded via AI systems. So too, for the midterm and final exams."

Launching an online curriculum for the world to participate isn't necessarily new -- Stanford has already offered some course this way, and is offering two additional courses, Introduction to Databases and Introduction to Machine Learning, both available online this fall.

As Saenz eloquently describes it, "it’s a careful step towards a bigger goal – one that extends even beyond Stanford." Thrun and Norvig were inspired by efforts Salman Kahn and his online, globally accessible Khan Academy. "Now, a world class university is bringing the same level of innovation to higher education, showing us that online distribution and automated systems can bring college-level courses to anyone with a steady internet connection. A class of 100,000 or even 200,000 isn’t impossible – it’s inspiring."

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