AI Class: Teaching the horde...

6 Nov 2011AI

Week four of the Stanford Introduction to AI class was about, well, what was it about? It was a bit of a mish-mash. Some stuff about logic, some stuff about planning. Nothing I can really pin some experiments on, so I’ve been thinking a bit about the format of the course instead.

I’m becoming less and less sure that the format that Peter and Sebastian have chosen for the course works well. First, the lecture format (hand written notes, done sort of live) is very susceptible to errors. This might be OK in a real live lecture, where the audience (if they’re paying attention) can help to correct mistakes, or can ask for clarification, but when the audience is disconnected and on the other end of an internet connection, it doesn’t work so well. I’m not quite sure why they elected to follow this route, since they have lecture slides prepared for the “real” Stanford course, which they could reuse with spoken narration.

Second, production values aren’t that great. Preparing e-learning materials is hard and always requires a lot more resources than expected. The impression that I get from looking at the course materials here is that some consultation with someone who’s worked on e-learning platforms before might have been a good idea.

Third, the “in video” quiz format works fine for quizzes, but it’s not that great for homeworks–too many errors and ambiguities. It seems as though the plan is to use the same format for the midterm and final, which seems like a recipe for disaster. I hope they manage to come up with an alternative.

I know that the course is very much an experiment, and I am 100% behind Sebastian’s desire to expand access to high-quality university teaching to as many people as possible. I just feel that the technical choices that they’ve made here don’t help them a lot.

I’ve heard from other people that the other Stanford engineering courses (machine learning and databases) are much more professionally produced and have had far fewer server issues. Perhaps that’s a result of the narrower focus and smaller student numbers, I don’t know.

All that said, I don’t really buy into the strand of complaining about things that appears in some threads on Reddit. My own experiences of teaching have given me a nice (post-traumatic...) appreciation of how hard it is to prepare good course materials and to really get through to students. And that’s when the students are right there in front of you. What Peter and Sebastian are trying to do is more than an order of magnitude more difficult. It’s rather tricky to assess in advance just how much resource you need for a project like this with open subscription, famous names, and very wide advertising. Expected enrollment of around 10,000 students; actual enrollment 160,000. See the problem?

I really believe in Sebastian’s mission, and if they can carry the experience they’re getting with this course forwards, I tihnk they could build something really worthwhile. I’m very happy indeed to be part of this experiment!