Stanford Free Classes – A review from a Stanford Student

Recently Stanford has started a new initiative to bring free classes to the public. From what I’ve seen from statistics, this venture has been extraordinarily successful with over 100,000 sign ups. Most likely only a fraction went through with the class, but that’s still a lot of people, especially for the first time. There has been quite a lot of press about these classes, but none seem to take into account the effects it has on the students that attend Stanford. Despite the success and the raves of great reviews, I was not at all satisfied by the CS229a: Applied Machine Learning, one of the three courses offered to the public fall quarter. Before I begin though, I want to say that I completely agree that education should not be locked up for only a few to use and I also agree that since education, in my mind, is a right, then it should be provided for free. Thus the Stanford initiative to do this is a great thing. However, there are quite a few things that hopefully Stanford will change in the future.

Rigor

First and foremost, the academic rigor of Stanford classes should be upheld. Going into CS229a, I knew it was going to be easier than its counterpart, CS229, since 229a focused on the applied side of machine learning and thus we didn’t have to learn the nasty mathematical part. In case you’re not familiar, the format of the class is such: watch 5-6 online vidoes (~10 minutes each), complete some review questions, complete a programming assignment for each week.

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). This is not a tribute to a stroke of brilliance I had, but rather how worthless the assignments became. I completed the program without even knowing what I was doing. The pdfs and comments associated with the programming assignments became so informative and gave so many hints that almost no critical thinking was needed. After talking to a TA (teaching assistant), it seemed that the programming assignments were tailored to fit the needs of the public (apparently large streams of questions came in after the first assignment was released). It’s definitely fair that there would be a lot of questions, people come from all kinds of different backgrounds, but to sacrifice critical thinking so that there are less questions is not something I’m OK with.

Next, there were the review questions. These were simple from the beginning to the end. I don’t have as much of a tiff against these as sometimes it’s good to just refresh what you learned in the lectures, but the questions hardly ever asked anything that the lecture didn’t explicitly state. A little thinking would have made these more interesting.

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.

Separation

In the future, I think it’d be best for Stanford to separate the students from the public for a few reasons.

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.

Stanford “free” classes aren’t free. Stanford students have to pay for them. The fact that I’m paying for them doesn’t bother me, the fact that people who aren’t paying for them have changed the class more than the ones who have, does. I’m sorry, but if I’m going to have to pay $50,000 a year to go to Stanford then the classes should be tailored to fit the students – not a working professional who wants to learn a little machine learning on the side. That is why I propose that they should separate the classes. Then if the assignments aren’t clear enough or whatever, the online public version can tailor to suit their needs and the in-person version can tailor to suit the students.

If all of Stanford’s classes are to be open to the public, then all those classes will quickly lose their value. By establishing a separation between the students and the public, Stanford will maintain the value of the classes for its students and the public will still be able to learn about a variety of topics.

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The initiative that Stanford has taken to open up education is great. However, God help me if all my classes become 2 hour weekly online lectures with review questions and auto-graded programming exercises. Stanford can expect a letter from me asking to get a cut in my tuition if the classes begin to go the way of CS229a.

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