8 weeks. 8 weekly assignments. 222 class quizzes. 2 teachers. 2 exams. 1 score. Might sound like just any other university course. Except there's one number missing, and it's probably the most important. 160,000 students signed up for this course. It was an experiment, the first one of its kind, and I had the opportunity to be part of it.
Introduction to Artificial Intelligence is the name of the course. It might as well have been something else. I think the topic chosen for this experiment "was not trivial" (a phrase I got to hear a lot during these weeks), there was a specific reason why AI was well suited to be chosen for a globally distributed online class, and it's very easy to see why. Global + distributed + online = internet. AI and Internet fit together like a house and carriage, both make use of each other in many, many ways. And because of that, many people could easily become interested in the project, and it was indeed about that, although they didn't expect so many were going to come.
Initially, a few thousands were expected to sign up. You can come up with that number by adding up a percentage of AI professionals, teachers, professors, and AI savvies and aficionados. But they calculated wrong. And in some ways, they weren't prepared for the massive amount of people that answered the call. From the 160,000 that signed up, an estimated 20,000 completed it. The online website holding the course material went down several times, most of them during semi-critical situations, such as during homework submission deadlines or even just before the final deadline was up.
But those little inconveniences are the only price anyone had to pay to be part of this experience. And that was the single most frequent question that I got from the people whom I talked about the course: how much did you pay? Nothing. What? A course with real Stanford University material taught by the world's top AI kung-fu masters Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig and it's free? Yes, it's an experiment, that's why it's free, in the future they might charge for online education. I think that would be logical, as long as they keep the driving force of this kind of program alive: its reach.
Academically speaking, I had the opportunity to go back a few years to when I was in university, and go through the same sensations. Doubt, euphoria, laziness, stress, thrill, comradery. There was a high level of competition present, even though many argued the marks were not that important. It so happens that those people were also the kind that loves challenge, and hence will fight to get a better mark than the rest, even though the marks are worth nothing. It's like karma in my favorite website, reddit, it's worthless, but everybody wants it.
In the end, as in the beginning, this was an experiment, and all participants, no matter if you were the complaining type or the silent student, were thankful to the organizers and in particular to the professors for going through this together. Next year there will be more than a dozen courses taught in a similar fashion, and MIT has jumped in too, clearly a sign of a positive result in the AI course which the online educators want to take to the next level.