Democratizing Education: Peter Norvig on Reaching a Global Audience

There is a growing rumble in the online education space. In order to understand the game, you’ll need to look at some of the key players: Coursera and Udacity are online education models that evolved from Stanford roots. Both organizations aim to bring the very best instruction available from elite universities to the masses for free. Coursera was founded by Stanford computer science professors and flipped classroom pioneers Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. Udacity is a private educational organization with a similar goal of democratizing education and grew out of the free computer science classes offered through Stanford.

Peter Norvig is an American computer scientist and Director of Research at Google Inc. He specializes in artificial intelligence, having published the leading college text in the field “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach.” In the fall of 2011 Norvig taught an online class on the subject with his colleague, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, who gave up his tenured position at Stanford to teach online courses.

Norvig delivered a TED Talk titled “The 100,000-student classroom” in which he shared what he and Thrun learned about reaching a global audience through online teaching. He and Thrun worked together to create an online class that would be equal or better than the flagship artificial intelligence class at Stanford … and to also bring it free to anyone who was interested in signing up. Norvig and Thrun watched in amazement as 50,000 people signed up during the first two weeks after the class’s announcement, and grew “a bit terrified” when it reached a total of approximately 160,000 students.

Norvig and Thrun took a lesson from the popularity of Khan Academy, realizing that short videos worked better than hour-long lectures. They decided to go even shorter than Khan’s traditional 10-minute videos, with videos never longer than six minutes that paused  in the middle for a quiz question to make it feel like a one-on-one session. Norvig and Thrun’s goal was to make nearly 160,000 students feel like they were the only student in the class, at least for a short time during a video lecture. To be able to instill that kind of mentorship feeling to an audience of that size is a truly remarkable feat.

The course still had a sense of community as any memorable class should. Norvig pointed out that they had to include due dates for assignments in order to counteract the inevitable procrastination that happens when students are left to their own devices to watch videos at home. The due dates prompted discussion forums that materialized out of the student community. Students were able to reach out to their peers for help and receive assistance in minutes. Norvig presented screenshots of message boards, sub-reddits, Facebook groups, YouTube channels and Google+ hangouts. “Peers can be the best teachers, because they’re the ones that remember what it’s like to not understand,” Norvig said. “Of course, we couldn’t have a classroom discussion with tens of thousands of students, so we encouraged and nurtured these online forums.”

It is fascinating to observe what Peter Norvig learned from teaching such an enormous population of students. That he reached an audience of 160,000 students speaks to the goals of organizations like Coursera and Udacity, which aim to democratize education for the masses. The best instruction from the best teachers does not need to remain behind the walls of the elite universities of the world. Through the world-changing power of social media, quality education can be available to anyone with an internet connection.

This kind of education has shown up in recent news. Coursera struck a partnership with 12 universities, adding to their existing four partners, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, University of Michigan, and of course, Stanford. Last April, Coursera took a move that seemed to distinguish itself from Udacity’s computer science-oriented courses by adding humanities courses to its fall curriculum after raising $16 million in funding from two venture capital firms.

It doesn’t look like Coursera is trying to compete with Udacity. Both organizations are working toward similar goals, but there seems to be collaboration between the two. Neither organization seems to have a monopoly or claim to the greater online education space, and it appears that neither one desires it, either. Peter Norvig actually teaches on both platforms.

There is one hurdle remaining. On a FAQ section of Coursera’s site, a question reads “Will I get university credit for taking this course?” The answer is no. Coursera and Udacity both offer certificates of completion, but no actual course credit. At what point will this democratization of college education lead to actual credentialing? Alternative higher education models like Straighterline exist that feature video content and lead to university credit, but at a cost. Will there reach a time when free online models like Coursera and Udacity actually challenge the very value of higher education by rewarding course-takers with actual credit? This is a radical concept indeed, and the money-making nature of universities will likely render it a moot point, but it is certainly worth thinking about. In the above-answered FAQ, in addition to answering “no”, Coursera did go on to mention examples of students taking online courses specific to certain institutions and receiving credit (or partial credit) for that school. That seems reasonable enough. Take a University of Michigan-specific Coursera class while attending the University of Michigan and receive University of Michigan credit. Is it worth wondering if that kind of credit can transfer to other schools? Where does the next step lead?