Welcome To The Brave New World Of Higher Education

Introduction to Artificial Intelligence is being offered online this fall, free of charge, to “students” around the world. The introductory class is historically one of the largest at Stanford University, with about 200 students. In a YouTube overview of the online class, professor Sebastian Thrun explains that his goal is to have about 200,000 online students and make it “the largest online AI class ever taught.”

As of this writing, almost 90,000 people have signed up. The Stanford campus is home to about 15,000 students.

Stanford AI Class
Stanford AI Class: Almost 90K People Have Expressed Interest

Welcome to the future of distributed education.

According to the NY Times:

The online students will not get Stanford grades or credit, but they will be ranked in comparison to the work of other online students and will receive a “statement of accomplishment.”

For the artificial intelligence course, students may need some higher math, like linear algebra and probability theory, but there are no restrictions to online participation. So far, the age range is from high school to retirees, and the course has attracted interest from more than 175 countries.

I’m not sure how the NYT or Stanford have reached a conclusion about student demographics, given that the only information I provided was my email address. And this was the auto-reply I received:

Dear Kathy,

Thank for for signing up at, you should receive an e-mail with more information once registration is available later this summer. We’re excited at the opportunity to share this class with the world.

Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig

Whether or not everyone who has asked for registration information actually follows through, this experiment will test eLearning systems, scalability and self-directed learning. Anyone want to venture a guess at the “interest to registration” ratio? Or the “registration to completion” ratio? (Expect to work 10 hours a week on this class, Thurn warns in the YouTube clip.) The class begins on October 10; here’s the syllabus.

The central objective is to teach basic methods in AI, and to convey enthusiasm for the field. AI has emerged as one of the most impactful disciplines in science and technology. Google, for example, is massively run on AI. Students passing this course should be proficient basic methods of AI, and have a broad overview of the field.


A solid understanding of probability and linear algebra will be required.

The two professors — Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig — have deep ties to Google.

Thrun, a research professor of Computer Science at Stanford, is notable for developing Google’s self-driving car, which was named one of the 50 best inventions of 2010 by TIME; it negotiated 140,000 miles without a driver. In 2005, his team of Stanford students and professors won the Pentagon-sponsored DARPA Grand Challenge; its driverless car successfully negotiated 132 miles of unpaved roads in a California desert.

Norvig, a former NASA scientist and University of California at Berkeley alumnus, is Google’s director of research. He is the co-author of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, the leading textbook on AI (it’s been translated into 12 languages and is used at more than 1,200 universities around the world). According to Stanford’s overview of the course, access to the third edition of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach “may be helpful but is not required.” Norvig “is donating all royalties earned from his text to charity.”

The ‘degree’ has been proxy for third party verification of minimum skill for centuries, and the PhD is a product of the Enlightenment.

What happens if/when organizations are willing to accept other measures of competency? What will that do to the business of higher ed? How will the economics work? What will be the value of ‘education’ that is not specific to a job – such as history or literature or civics? Will it again become a luxury of the wealthy?

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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