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Knowledge Can”t Be Confine: The Stanford Philosophy

Posted on July 10, 2012 in Education

By Mahanshu Parashar:

More than half the world’s population is under 25, which means we live in a very young world. Never in world history, was there a time when so many young human bodies walked on the surface of earth. The collective intelligence and spirit of this population can take the world out of all its problems and take humanity to a new prosperous era. They are the prime targets of all big firms of the world, after all their decisions run the world economy now.

But all this human capital can lie to waste if their energies are not channelled in the right direction. They need education, quality education at that, given by quality teachers. This will help them develop further on existing human expertise and develop advanced technologies for future. We need better Engineers, doctors, artists, journalists, authors everyone and everything. This will require them to get best resources to learn. Such an initiative has been taken by two professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun at Stanford Univeristy.

The professors believe that the knowledge shouldn’t be confined to closed doors. It must be spread freely. With this philosophy they made their course of artificial intelligence at Stanford University, available to everyone around the globe. The response was phenomenal with more than 160,000 students registering for the course.

The professors believed that there was a need of bringing in technology in teaching which is done today in the same way as in medieval times. The overwhelming response in the first few weeks of registration motivated them to look out for ways to hone their skills and teaching methodology for the particular medium. The famous American educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom showed that one on one tutoring is the best way for teaching and learning hence they kept it as a model for their teaching.

By the help of technology i.e. an overhead camera they used to record videos of them working on a sheet of paper and talking to explain the concepts involved. For the students it felt as if they were being tutored by a friend of them in a comfortable place and not in a traditional crowded classroom with a board. They got good reviews for this teaching method initially and thus went on with the method for the entire course.

There videos were small of 2 minutes to 6 minutes which they learnt from the experience of Khan Academy, as they help in retaining attention. In each video they kept 2-3 quiz questions to make them more interesting and giving them a feel of one on one tutoring. This helped the students to reflect on what they have learnt in the two minutes of the video.

They believe that the students learn best if they are exposed to practical problems and when guided properly they can synthesise even novel solutions. Instead of traditional formula based questions which require rote memorising, they preferred open ended questions. This helped the students to think and apply what they have learnt.

To enforce discipline and regularity which is hard to maintain in an online course, they used the traditional method of due dates for assignments etc. This maintained regularity in study schedule of students and keeping them at par with all others. Their one more innovation was to introduce student forums for their course. There purpose was to get peer to peer problem resolution and concept clarification. Most of these were student maintained with the professors allowing them to learn among each other. All the queries and doubts were resolved between students only within minutes as students from around the world combined their forces to learn the subject matter clearly.

This experiment was based on the Harvard Professor Eric Mazur’s work on peer learning. As they found out, peers can be the best teachers. In words of Norvig, “Peers can be the best teachers, because they’re the ones that remember what it’s like to not understand” This fantastic idea worked really well and students who completed the course felt more comfortable with the subject matter in the end.

In the end, out of the 160,000 who registered 80, 000 participated actively and 20,000 submitted all homework and cleared the course. This was a great achievement as the students were spread in 90 countries in total! Thus, education once reserved for students attending the nation’s elite colleges and universities became available to everyone in true sense.

There’s plenty of speculation around whether Norvig’s online classes, as well as subsequently announced MOOCs like edX, the joint project between MIT and Harvard, will replace traditional higher education. Norvig says it’s ironic that although they set out to disrupt traditional higher education, their online classes are more like a really well-done traditional college class than most folks imagine. But whatever is in store, this experiment was a good start for using the technology for its best use that is to teach people.