Thursday, 12 January 2012

On-line Education?

I have last term completed the on-line module in Artificial Intelligence offered by Stanford's Sebastian Thrun and Google's Peter Norvig–both top-academics and experts in their field. I guess it was successful, as I received a grade of 79% (a 'first' in UK terms, but I have the suspicion it doesn't work like that). Given the minimal effort I put in (mainly due to lack of time) I could very likely have achieved a better result with some extra work. But with a full-time job it's not so easy to put aside 10 hours a week for doing so, which was the amount of time recommended by the course leaders.

So I got 79%, but did I learn anything? And do the 79% reflect my achievements? And what was the overall learning experience like?

First, the learning experience: the module was delivered as a series of short low-tech video lectures, interspersed with multiple-choice or number-entry quizzes. Then there was homework (multiple-choice and number-entry quizzes) and a mid-term and final exam (both multiple choice and... you get the idea).

The lectures were interesting: it was a camera view top-down on a piece of paper on which the lecturers would (hand-)write, not just a filmed 'lecture'. The tone was informal and friendly, and Thrun's charming German accent made me almost feel at home. And I also learned–from the few head-shot video sequences–that Peter Norvig likes colourful shirts.

The quizzes, however, were rather limited. There was the problem of turning quite complex material into a simple format, and also (which I found hardest) missing context. As a result the questions were often trivial side-aspects, or impossible to answer due to ambiguity (judging from the few forum posts I looked at, many other people had the same issue). You can interpret a question in many different ways, especially if you need to take into account external constraints which have not been clearly specified.

Quite often you get an answer wrong, and then look at the explanation of the proper outcome, and you think "oh right, that's how they meant it".

I quite struggled with Bayes networks, and I consistently got the wrong answers when asked how many independent parameters I would need to describe one. To this day I do not know why I need to know this. I can guess, but it wasn't really explained. Formal logic was one of the things I felt very comfortable with, as I had covered that in my own UG studies as a computational linguist, but I only got 1 out of 4 points in the final exam question, as I made one small error; based on that the subsequent answers were also wrong.

My best results were in computer vision–100%. And that's even though I'm short-sighted! But do I really understand computer vision so much better than all the other areas of AI? No. Thing is, all that was asked in the relevant quizzes was basic maths. There was a simple formula, relating various parameters such as focal length and distances to each other, and all you had to do was resolve the equation for different values and work out the result. I would have been able to do this beforehand, and didn't even learn that in the course. Still, I was assessed on it and scored 100%. But anybody with basic maths would have been able to do that, even without watching a single minute of any of the class videos.

So my first criticism is: the quizzes were not designed properly. There is a lot more one can do with multiple choice question, but Thrun and Norvig didn't do it. The assessments felt like an ad-hoc addition, along the lines of "I need a quiz now, so what could I ask?".

My second criticism is the way the scoring worked. One slight mistake, nil points. In a real exam you would get points for results which are wrong, but only because of a mistake in an intermediate step. An all-or-nothing approach is not very helpful.

Is this the future of education? Are on-line classes like this all we need? I don't think so. Apart from the implementation–it'd be easy to come up with some better quizzes–it's also quite detached. There is little direct interaction (impossible with 140,000+ students), and at times you feel a bit lost. It is obvious that this was an experiment, and as such it is not possible to expect wonderful and perfect results, but there is still a long way to go.

Did I learn anything I would not have learned from reading a book? Probably not. The main advantage for me was to have the pressure of getting through the weekly session before the hand-in date, which makes you put aside time you would otherwise spend on something else. So in that respect it is alright; and the fact that it was delivered on-line was convenient as you could choose the time when you wanted to study it. But while this is good for a supplementary course, I am glad I did have proper seminars and lectures when I went to university.

While you can't argue with a free course (you did get more than you paid for!), there is still a lot of scope for improvement for this particular type of course, an on-line distance course, and I cannot see it replacing 'proper' seminars any time soon. But it was overall an interesting experience, if only to find out what 'real' teaching should be like.


  1. Very interesting - and well done! It's great that you made the time available to try this out - my guess is that it was designed as a MOOC? That would explain the minimal engagement/interaction - and perhaps a better online experience would come from smaller numbers and actually being 'known' to the facilitator... anyhow, I shall try one of these myself and see how it goes!

  2. So this is basically a direct response to my question, thanks!

    1. Only I wrote it about a month before you asked your question...! ;)