Andrew Ng champions online education as ‘the great equalizer’

Oct. 19, 2012, 2:32 a.m.

“The world is a very unfair place today, where the circumstances you’re born in either give you or deny you the opportunity to have a good life. But the technology now exists to offer a high quality education to everyone at a very low cost.”

Andrew Ng, associate professor of computer science and co-founder of the education technology company Coursera, is a leader in the world of online education. Working with fellow professor Daphne Koller Ph.D. ’93, Ng established the company in April 2012. Coursera has become the darling of the online education movement, with over 1.5 million students worldwide enrolled in at least one of 200 available courses.

In under a year, 33 of the world’s top universities have partnered with Coursera to offer online classes from their course catalogues to the public for free. These massive online open courses, known as “MOOCs,” represent a model of online learning new to the world of higher education.

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Computer Science and receiving his doctorate from UC-Berkeley, Ng accepted a position at Stanford in 2002. For many years, he conducted research in machine learning and artificial intelligence. He also began teaching Stanford’s main Machine Learning course.

“Enrollment in my machine learning quickly grew from the 35 students my first year,” he said. “With larger classes, I started to become interested in automation and scaling. I wanted to develop a technology that would give everyone a good experience.”

Ng started the Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE) program in 2008, which placed a number of Stanford courses, including his Machine Learning course, online for free. His desire to create an online platform for university courses stemmed from both his strong beliefs regarding the sharing of educational resources as well as practical and pragmatic concerns about large class sizes and effective pedagogy.

“I would run into people around Silicon Valley who had watched my course online and I started to realize what a huge impact online education could have,” Ng said. “If I had not lived in Silicon Valley, I would not have gotten such incredible feedback.”

Ng hosted his machine learning class online in October 2011 and over 100,000 students registered for its first iteration. The course, featuring quizzes and graded programming assignments, became one of the first successful MOOCs and led to the subsequent founding of Coursera.

Ng and Koller’s focus areas compliment one another. Koller emphasizes the potential of the platform to revolutionize the way live, physical classes are taught through the creation of flipped classrooms. Ng is more interested in the potential of initiatives like Coursera to democratize educational content and provide course resources to the masses.

“I have friends who are unemployed, scraping together a few hundred dollars to pay their tuition, so I’ve seen a lot of this first-hand,” Ng said. “So if we can drive down the cost, and give people like my friend better, more affordable access to high quality education, I think we can change a lot of peoples’ lives.”

Ng rejects any claims that efforts like his will undermine the value of a prestigious degree.

“The value of attending Stanford University is not the content,” he said. “Content is free on the web for anyone. Rather, the real value is the interaction with professors and equally bright students.”

Nonetheless, the opportunities that efforts like Coursera are bringing to people outside of the walls of the world’s prestigious schools are significant.

“We’re seeing that it’s possible for students to take my class online and become good enough to place highly in machine learning competitions!” Ng said, noting that several novice programmers who signed up for Ng’s Machine Learning class on Coursera have recently won predictive-modeling competitions.

Ng recognizes that we are far from achieving equality in education, but he remains optimistic about the future. With the spirit of an activist, Ng outlined his poignant vision for educational rights in the future.

“Once upon a time, there was no right to own property. Once upon a time, there was no right to vote. Once upon a time, there was no right to speech,” Ng said. “These are all now basic rights. Given the importance of education, a high quality education cannot be a privilege —it too must be a right.”

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