There has been a huge buzz in the world of computer programming and online education over Stanford’s move to open up computer science lectures to the public. The ambitious move to offer free Stanford classes takes online learning beyond the model established by MIT OpenCourseWare — not only can members of the public have access to some of the highest-quality college-level instruction on the planet, but they are taking the same classes as Stanford students.
But not everyone is satisfied with the offerings. A Stanford student who tried one of the classes on machine learning says it was watered down and provided a poor substitute for in-person Stanford lectures. Here’s an excerpt of his Stanford free classes review:
… Since the video lectures were excellent in the class, I’ll start with the programming exercises. At the beginning, some of the programming assignments were challenging since I wasn’t used to matlab/octave programming or machine learning. However, the level of difficulty dropped off drastically as the quarter progressed. At its worst, I completed a few programming assignments without even knowing that the corresponding lectures had been released (I have never done machine learning in the past) …
… If these classes are going to be labeled as Stanford classes, then they should be taught as such. CS229a has by far been my easiest CS class (besides maybe the final project) I’ve taken at Stanford. Normally, I wouldn’t have had a problem with this, except now that Winter quarter registration has opened and I have found that half of my classes are now open to the public in the online format, I’m worried that the rest of the classes will follow this trend. If all of my classes suddenly become as easy 229a, I will be seriously disappointed. I came primarily to Stanford to learn and study – classes like CS229a don’t satiate that desire. Perhaps it’s a fluke and the other online classes will be much more difficult, but it is still worrisome. Stanford needs to keep rigor even in their online courses – it’s useless to lower the bar so low that it only takes a small step to get over. …
… Online lectures suck. Sure, they’re great for rainy days or people learning at a distance or people that don’t go to Stanford. However, these new classes are getting rid of in-person lectures completely. I met barely anyone in my CS229a class. Everything was done alone in my room, which is kind of crappy especially when there is such a nice campus right outside. If Stanford is going to offer these classes, then by all means offer them, but don’t make students take them as well. Have the professors teach as many students as they can in-person and the rest can watch online.”
(Be sure to read the reaction in the comments at the bottom of the post. There is more discussion of the class and Stanford’s online lectures on Hacker News)
Stanford free classes: A watered-down educational experience?
The concern about content being watered down is also valid one — the school apparently put the interests of the public ahead of its own students, which understandably does not sit well with them. However, there are several ways to serve both populations without sacrificing the interests of either group, such as not watering down the content or keeping the two groups separate when it comes to designing for-credit content.
As for issues with the online format, this post should be a wake-up call for Stanford administrators and people who assume that online coursework can be substituted for an in-class learning experience. While there are benefits, there are many pitfalls. I’ve been a critic of online education for years, based on the developments I’ve seen at the Harvard Extension School as well as my own experience taking an online precalculus class for credit at UC Berkeley.
Opening up education to everyone via the models established by OpenCourseWare and Khan Academy lets learners get access to once-exclusive knowledge, and is an admirable goal. But when watered-down online coursework is offered as an equivalent of an in-class experience, or are offered for credit, that’s when the value proposition is thrown into sharp focus.
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