Software Eats Education: An Audacious Undertaking


I also recognize that education methods have not fundamentally changed in hundreds—possibly even thousands—of years. The core learning structure has always been and remains one teacher and a limited number of students. This structure reduces learning opportunities for much of the world’s population (even in first-world countries) and limits the impact of the best educators to no more than a few dozen lucky individuals a year.

But it doesn’t have to continue like this. From a business perspective, this is a supply and demand problem in that the demand for quality education is not being met by an adequate supply of learning opportunities. From a technology perspective, this is a problem that can now be solved with software. From a societal perspective, there should be alarm bells going off for everyone that this is an issue that requires our boldest ideas and brightest minds.

And that’s why we’re so excited to announce our investment in Udacity, a team and company that we’re absolutely convinced will change the world. We believe the next big disruptive trend in software will focus on education and we feel that this is the team that will lead the way.

Let’s start with what Udacity does. By leveraging the economics of the Internet, Udacity aims to democratize education by delivering world-class coursework to hundreds of thousands of students everywhere. There’s no doubt that online learning will radically shift the economics of education.  Udacity has the magic formula because they are combining their platform with their content to make learning highly interactive, targeted and instantly available to students around the world.


Read the whole thing.

Introducing MRUniversity (spread the word)

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrock are launching MRUniversity

That’s Marginal Revolution University, MRU, or I suppose to some ‘Mister’ University.

We think education should be better, cheaper, and easier to access.  So we decided to take matters into our own hands and create a new online education platform toward those ends. We have decided to do more to communicate our personal vision of economics to you and to the broader world.

You can visit here.  There you can sign up for information about our first course, Development Economics, which is described by Alex below.

Here are a few of the principles behind MR University:

1. The product is free (like this blog), and we offer more material in less time.

2. Most of our videos are short, so you can view and listen between tasks, rather than needing to schedule time for them.  The average video is five minutes, twenty-eight seconds long.  When needed, more videos are used to explain complex topics.

3. No talking heads and no long, boring lectures.  We have tried to reconceptualize every aspect of the educational experience to be friendly to the on-line world.

4. It is low bandwidth and mobile-friendly.  No ads.

5. We offer tests and quizzes.

6. We have plans to subtitle the videos in major languages.  Our reach will be global, and in doing so we are building upon the global emphasis of our home institution, George Mason University.

7. We invite users to submit content.

8. It is a flexible learning module.  It is not a ‘MOOC’ per se, although it can be used to create a MOOC, namely a massive, open on-line course.

9. It is designed to grow rapidly and flexibly, absorbing new content in modular fashion — note the beehive structure to our logo.  But we are starting with plenty of material.

10. We are pleased to announce that our first course will begin on October 1.

Please help spread the word via tweet, facebook and post and of course please join us at MRU.

(Via Marginal Revolution.)

More positivity: Salman Khan at Rice University’s 2012 commencement

Salman Kahn

Sal Kahn’s 2012 comment address at Rice University was memorable — and not just because we are both Rice grads. You will not the regret seventeen minutes of your time to see what he had to say. The Rice University news has a brief summary of Kahn’s remarks. Excerpts: 

Commencement speaker Salman Khan’s address to the graduates focused on contributions of a different kind: He urged the students to do everything they can to “increase the net happiness in the world.”

(…) Khan offered an example of how a Rice grad had made a difference in his own life. In 2009, he quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to devote his energy to building Khan Academy online. For months, he struggled to find support until Ann Doerr ’75, a Rice alumna, gave him the financial backing he needed to get Khan Academy up and running.

Doerr, an environmental activist, and her husband, Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Rice alum John Doerr ’73, have made generous contributions to Rice, as well. A $15 million gift from their Beneficus Foundation in 2010 established the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, and John Doerr was the university’s commencement speaker in 2007.

Ann Doerr’s belief in Khan – and her willingness to show her support – was crucial, Khan said.

“Obviously the money was a good deal,” he said. “But the real power of what Ann did was that act of empowerment, that act of validation.”

His advice for the graduates was to do the same thing – to support and validate others who do good things, even in small ways.

“Don’t just sit by and observe it,” Khan said. “Recognize it. When you do that, all sorts of things are going to start percolating in the universe.”

(…) Fifty years from now, Khan told the graduates, they’ll have regrets – “we’ll all have them.” He urged them to try “a little thought experiment”: Imagine, he said, that 50 years from now a genie gives you a chance to go back in time, take you “right here, to May 2012.” He urged the graduates to live now as if it were their “second pass” through life.

“I am truly honored and humbled to be here,” Khan told the Class of 2012, “just completely excited by what you all are going to do in your ‘second pass.’”


Mooresville School District, a Laptop Success Story


‘This is a chance for my child to compete with families that have more money than me.’

Via John Gruber, Alan Schwartz, reporting for the NYT

Mr. Edwards spoke on a White House panel in September, and federal Department of Education officials often cite Mooresville as a symbolic success. Overwhelmed by requests to view the programs in action, the district now herds visitors into groups of 60 for monthly demonstrations; the waiting list stretches to April. What they are looking for is an explanation for the steady gains Mooresville has made since issuing laptops three years ago to the 4,400 4th through 12th graders in five schools (three K-3 schools are not part of the program).

The district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Attendance is up, dropouts are down. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student — $7,415.89 a year — but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.

“Other districts are doing things, but what we see in Mooresville is the whole package: using the budget, innovating, using data, involvement with the community and leadership,” said Karen Cator, a former Apple executive who is director of educational technology for the United States Department of Education. “There are lessons to be learned.”

Start with math lessons: each student’s MacBook Air is leased from Apple for $215 a year, including warranty, for a total of $1 million; an additional $100,000 a year goes for software. Terry Haas, the district’s chief financial officer, said the money was freed up through “incredibly tough decisions.”

Sixty-five jobs were eliminated, including 37 teachers, which resulted in larger class sizes — in middle schools, it is 30 instead of 18 — but district officials say they can be more efficiently managed because of the technology. Some costly items had become obsolete (like computer labs), though getting rid of others tested the willingness of teachers to embrace the new day: who needs globes in the age of Google Earth?

Families pay $50 a year to subsidize computer repairs, though the fee is waived for those who cannot afford it, about 18 percent of them. Similarly, the district has negotiated a deal so that those without broadband Internet access can buy it for $9.99 a month. Mr. Edwards said the technology had helped close racial performance gaps in a district where 27 percent of the students are minorities and 40 percent are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Others see broader economic benefits.

“Even in the downturn, we’re a seller’s market — people want to buy homes here,” said Kent Temple, a real estate agent in town. “Families say, ‘This is a chance for my child to compete with families that have more money than me.’ Six years from now, you’ll see how many from disadvantaged backgrounds go to college and make it.”

Unfortunately the NYT article has no depth – not a scrap of information on the methodology, what software, what content? E.g., are they using an Kahn Academy.

Showme: you too can be an education innovator

It is challenging just to keep up with the pace of education innovation. The number of players keeps increasing too: Kahn Academy, Udacity, now take a look at who have developed an easy-to-use iPad app so you can create your own “Sal Kahn like” video+audio+whiteboard segments.

Learning and teaching made simple

ShowMe is an open learning community where you can teach or learn anything. Watch great lessons for free, or create your own with the iPad app.

The free iPad app and free website are beta, but seem to work fine in my testing. The website is an essential part of the solution – that is where you host your library of Showmes!

Udacity: Reinventing Education (2)

Felix Salmon posted a followup that I just noticed. Felix closes with this:

(…) What Khan and Thrun and others are creating is a new educational paradigm, which promises not only much greater scalability than anything we’ve had until now, but also higher-quality education. That’s the real lesson of Thrun’s Stanford students taking his class online: it means that the online model really can have its cake (reach millions of people) while eating it too (be better for students than the courses offered at elite institutions).

The trick is intimacy, in a way which takes full advantage of the lean-forward nature of computer screens. I’m in England right now, where the Open University has been around for over 40 years. The OU has historically reached students through the lean-back mediums of TV and radio, which in turn encouraged its lecturers to behave as though they were trying to reach a large audience. When you see Salman Khan or Sebastian Thrun drawing pictures on the computer screen in front of you, while listening to them talk to you through headphones you’re wearing, the experience is very different — it’s a much more immersive and intimate experience. Blow that YouTube video up to full screen, and jump down the rabbit hole. You might just learn something.

Rethinking the Way College Students Are Taught

Harvard students Ryan Duncan (right) and Kevin Mazige in their lab for Eric Mazur’s physics class. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Harvard physics prof. Eric Mazur has been rethinking his own teaching process since the early 1990s. “Peer-instruction” is one of his innovations:

“And something happened in my classroom which I had never seen before,” he says. “The entire classroom erupted in chaos. They were dying to explain it to one another and to talk about it.”

Mazur says after just a few minutes of talking to each other, most of the students seemed to have a much better understanding of the concept he’d been trying to teach.

“The 50 percent who had the right answer effectively convinced the other 50 percent,” he says.

Here’s what Mazur has figured out about what goes on when the students talk with each other during peer instruction:

“Imagine two students sitting next to one another, Mary and John. Mary has the right answer because she understands it. John does not. Mary’s more likely, on average, to convince John than the other way around because she has the right reasoning.”

But here’s the irony. “Mary is more likely to convince John than professor Mazur in front of the class,” Mazur says.

“She’s only recently learned it and still has some feeling for the conceptual difficulties that she has whereas professor Mazur learned [the idea] such a long time ago that he can no longer understand why somebody has difficulty grasping it.”

(…) Mazur now teaches all of his classes using a “peer-instruction” approach. Rather than teaching by telling, he teaches by questioning. Mazur says it’s a particularly effective way to teach large classes.

Read the whole thing »

Udacity: Reinventing Education

Thrun says he can no longer teach at Stanford University. He says he was presented with the red pill and the blue pill. “You can take the blue pill and go back to your lecture of 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill and seen wonderland.”

Sebastian Thrun

High on our list of role models for our grandchildren are Paul Romer and Sebastian Thrun. One of the most-coveted prizes for a professor is tenure at Stanford University. Because they are so committed to their respective social ventures, both Romer and Thrun resigned their Stanford tenure. [see end-note correction]

We have been writing about Paul Romer’s Charter Cities and his New Growth Theory for some time. Meanwhile we have been following Sebastian Thrun mainly in the context of the Google and Stanford self-driving-car programs.

This post is about innovation in education. Background: last August we posted a brief note on Stanford’s free Introduction to Artificial Intelligence Course offering. That announcement was very exciting – but it wasn’t practical to for us to “attend” the course while touring Europe. Well, it turned out that Dr. Thrun and co-professor Peter Norvig got a lot more out of that online course than they anticipated. With the staggering online signup of 160,000 students around the world, the famous professors had to work nearly to exhaustion to develop new approaches that would be effective at such a scale.

At the 2012 Digital Life Design Conference, Sebastian describes his learning experience teaching the course, Closing his presentation Dr. Thrun announces that he is resigning his Stanford tenure so that he can devote his full energies to the new education startup Udacity cofounded by Sebastian and Prof. David Evans.

We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.

We’re hiring: We are a rapidly growing company located in Palo Alto, California looking for great people to join our team. We’re looking for a wide variety of backgrounds – the only thing in common is a passion for improving education.

The Udacity online course offerings are free to world. To my delight, one of the first courses is CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car, which will be taught by Dr. Thrun himself, starting February 20, 2012. And you can audit their courses, so sign up now!

If you would like to share our excitement about these education innovations, I suggest the following sequence of references:

University 2.0 Sebastian Thrun: this is prof. Thrun’s 2012 Digital Life Design presentation (you may wish to skip the first 5 minutes of introduction). In his concluding remarks Sebastian says “I can’t teach at Stanford again” as he explains that he is abandoning his tenure to devote full attention to

Reinventing Education with Khan Academy and Artificial Intelligence Class: this is a 45 minute recording of the December Google+ Hangout led by Khan Academy founder Sal Khan and Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. The Google+ Hangout was one of what Norvig/Thrun called their “office hours” supporting the Stanford AI Course. This segment of “office hours” is initially attended by invited groups of students from other prestigious computer science schools.

Sal Kahn at TED 2011: Salman Kahn was perhaps the prime mover in online education at scale. See our earlier post Khan Academy is getting recognition…. Certainly Thrun and Norvig benefited from Kahn’s ground-breaking experience (and I’ll freely speculate that they consulted heavily with Sal as they developed the AI Course).

Kahn Academy: 2,800 free video learning tools — enjoy! Now that Bill Gates and the Google Foundation are providing additional financial backing, Sal Kahn and his development team are innovating at a blistering pace.

The Stanford AI Course website: while the 2011 course is closed, you are invited to audit the course at their YouTube channel.

An excellent briefing on the course by Stanford AI Lab professor Daphne Koller (originally titled at NYTimes Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education).

The Udacity (formerly Know Labs) website.

For more please explore the Seekerblog/Education category.

Update 2/4/12: very interesting. Researching Sebastian Thrun and Udacity I noted that Sebastian has posted on his personal homepage a correction on his Stanford tenure resignation. My introduction at the beginning of this post isn’t accurate. Here are his words:

There is a misrepresentation about my tenure situation that I’d like to correct. I did on my own volition resign from my full tenured position, effective April 1, 2011. However, this was primarily to continue my employment with Google, and it predates my online classes. Stanford has generously appointed me as a research professor without tenure, which means I remain a voting member of the Academic Council. I continue to advise students and help the department with administrative issues. And in all clarity: Stanford is an amazing place!!! I love Stanford.

That said, here is the exciting part of Sebastian’s Welcome! page:

One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life is to teach a class to 160,000 students. In the Fall of 2011, Peter Norvig and I decided to offer our class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to the world online, free of charge. We spent endless nights recording ourselves on video, and interacting with tens of thousands of students. Volunteer students translated some of our classes into over 40 languages; and in the end we graduated over 23,000 students from 190 countries. In fact, Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined. This one class had more educational impact than my entire career. Just watch this video.

Stanford offers ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ free online to anyone

Many thanks to Alex Tabarrok for the heads-up on Stanford’s online offering. I hope this free course will be a prototype for many more of the same caliber. Though I’ll be traveling during the course period I’m very tempted to sign up just so I can monitor the effectiveness of the course. I’m keen to evaluate the courseware. As I’ve written in previous posts, I think the future of education has to move towards connecting the star teachers with large numbers of students – such as in South Korea where the leading free-market tutor made $4 million lecturing to some 50,000 students.

You can’t get much more high profile than co-teaching by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Whether either is a star teacher I do not know – but they are superstar researchers.

Here’s Alex’s commentary:

From Metafilter:

Stanford’s ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ course will be offered free to anyone online this fall. The course will be taught by SebastianThrun (Stanford) and PeterNorvig (Google, Director of Research), who expect to deal with the historically large course size using tools like Google Moderator.

There will two 75 min lectures per week, weekly graded homework assignments and quizzes, and the course is expected to require roughly 10 hours per week. Over 10,000 students have already signed up.

In 2003, I argued that professors were becoming obsolete, giving a 10 to 20 year time for a big move to online education. Later, I pointed out that the market was moving towards superstar teachers, who teach hundreds at a time or even thousands online. Today, we have the Khan Academy, a huge increase in online education, electronic textbooks and peer grading systems and highly successful superstar teachers with Michael Sandel and his popular course Justice, serving as example number one.

One of the last remaining items holding back online education is a credible system to credential and compare student achievement across universities. Arnold Kling has that covered with a new business model.

For superstars and strong researchers, life in the ivory tower remains good. But for most teachers the cushy life is gone; tenure is just a dream for a majority of university teachers, salaries are low and teaching requirements have risen.

As in other fields what we are seeing is an increase in teaching inequality, at the top are high-salary superstars surrounded by apprentices who work long hours at low pay for a lottery ticket that for most will not payoff and at the bottom are lots of mid-skill adjuncts who do the drudge work of teaching remedial English and math.

Addendum: Tim Worstall points to the UK’s University of London as a model for the future.

[From The Coming Education Revolution]

How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education

Salman Khan is changing education in a very big way for “just one guy” — because he has really good ideas. This excellent Wired article concludes with this excerpt:

…For his part, Khan says he’s now considering starting his own private school, as a way to see just how much you could wrap learning around Khan Academy. His ideas are intriguing: Among other things, his school wouldn’t divide kids by age; teenagers would mix in with kindergartners. “I have no research to back this up,” he says, “but younger kids act more mature around older kids, and older kids act more mature around younger kids.” If the classrooms were fully flipped, students could spend more of the school day doing creative activities. He’d use board games to teach negotiation, and he’d teach history backward. (“Why are the Israelis and Palestinians pissed at each other? Let’s go back a couple of years. Wait—they were pissed at each other even then! So you go back even further …”) He also thinks he’d teach kids subjects that have more real-world applicability—like “statistics, law, accounting, and finance. Why are you teaching people civics? Teach them law. That’s more relevant, and you learn civics at the same time.” He calculates that it would cost only $10,000 per child, “affordable for professional couples out here.”

If Khan does start such a school, he’ll have a powerful advantage. He’s been posting videos online for five years and students have answered more than 50 million questions in his software: Khan and his team are now sitting on a massive pile of data about how people learn and where they get stuck. He plans to mine the information to discover previously invisible patterns. How many times do students need to view the statistics video before they can answer questions about the subject? If you examine all the kids who stumble on, say, fractional division and basic algebra, can you predict what other subjects they’ll have trouble mastering? In the long run, Khan believes, such data mining could help him create customized lessons that are perfectly keyed to each kid’s learning style.

Will the magic still work when Salman has other people generating the video lessons?