Wednesday, March 14, 2012

2012 - bring on the learning revolution

(I should note that the title is taken straight from Ken Robinson's TED talk)

I'm exhausted at the moment, but hugely excited. I've been spending evenings over the last three weeks, usually till the early hours, experimenting with a new development in online education.

The Open Courseware (OCW) movement started in 1999, in Tubingen, Germany, but quickly spread to the US. The idea is simple: Take the best educators at the top universities around the world, video their courses and put them online, for free, for anyone to watch. Over the last couple of years I've watched probably a dozen or so courses on subjects from human behavioural biology, to quantum field theory (admittedly this is a little late, being Sidney Coleman, who passed away before the videos were put online), to existentialist philosophy, from science and cooking to biology at MIT. Some of these may not fall under the umbrella of OCW officially, but the idea is the same: As of the last decade, there have been a wealth of amazing materials online for anyone to access. Open Culture keeps a pretty good track of the best of the courses online here.

These courses were often fantastic to watch and I learned a great deal, but there was always a large piece missing from these sets of audio or video materials, which is that they were very much uni-directional. You sat, as a viewer, and took in the information. It turns out that this sort of learning is pretty inefficient. Building up passive understanding of a subject is one thing, but building up a true working understanding of it takes exercise and effort. The act of letting it wash over you is not enough. In fact even going through the material yourself in 'revision' mode is pretty ineffective (there's a lovely paper here detailing precisely the effects of various types of learning methods).

So, come the end of 2011 things started to change. Two courses were offered online from Stanford whereby not only were there video lectures, but there were online exercises in the form of multiple choice problem sets and programming assignments, all of which were marked automatically. Suddenly you were forced to understand the material (though in the case of the hugely successful Machine Learning course I'd say that, given that this was a first run, the tests didn't actually examine how much you understood the material, but more the programing language - in this case Octave - this will change in future revisions I'm sure). The other course, on Artificial Intelligence, gained over 100,000 participants, and suddenly the whole thing exploded. Sebastian Thrun said that, having lectured to so many students, lecturing to a classroom full of 200 enormously lucky individuals no longer seemed terribly efficient (I'm misquoting and paraphrasing enormously) and from this vision of the future, Udacity was born. Some of the quotes can be found in the article here which gives more outline of his vision.

Udacity is one of several platforms which have started in the last few of weeks. Udacity aims, eventually, to give the material of an entire degree course in computer science. The modules are not coming online in a linear fashion but this means that whatever your knowledge of programing there will probably be something for you.

I'm taking part in the first two courses. CS101 teaches you to build your own search engine, and is really a very basic course in Python with some simple implementations of web crawling and web searching but for a beginner in Python it's perfect.

CS373 is a more advanced course and expects that you already have a good working knowledge of Python, although you could pick up what you need to know for this in a matter of a few hours. The course is based around programing a robotic car - like the car that Google used to win the Darpa Grand Challenge (a challenge whereby an automated car has to make its way through long and complex real-world road situations). In this course you learn a great deal about robotics and designing intelligent computer systems for navigating complex environments.

Udacity is going to be offering more courses starting in April. Each course, I believe, will last on the order of a couple of months and at the end you get a certificate based on the marks you get in your homework assignments. Typically there are an hour or so of lectures a week and the lectures themselves are built around solving problems for yourself - you learn as you move through the lectures by solving the puzzles as you go. Here is a screenshot from one particular programming assignment in the course - not homework, but just a question that is given as you move through the second unit. This is all done online and you program directly into the browser.
You can see above the format of the class whereby not only are there lectures and homework, but also a hugely active discussion area where students discuss the course, pose questions and build understanding together.

So, that's Udacity. At the same time, another organisation, Coursera has come online and is offering 15 or so courses on everything from Natural Language Processing to Anatomy.
Right now I'm taking part in Model Thinking, Probabilistic Graphical Models, Natural Language Processing and Design and Analysis of Algorithms 1. Each of these have several hours of lectures a week, so I'm downloading them and watching them with VLC at a faster speed, slowing down for the more complex ideas. The format is very similar to the Udacity courses, though the lectures are less active for the watcher on Coursera. Again, the emphasis is on plenty of exercises to make sure that you really build understanding as you go through the course. Here's a screenshot of the Natural Language Processing page:
Here's an introduction to the model thinking course:

and on probabilistic graphical models:

In addition to all of this, MIT, through MITx is offering their own format for an online course starting with MITx 6.002 Introduction to circuits and electronics. This really astounded me. Not only do you get the same extremely high quality video lectures, homeworks, discussion forums etc. but there is, built into the interface, a virtual electronics lab for you to experiment with and use for the assignments. For completeness I'll include a screenshot of this interface as well:
They also have an ever-evolving wiki page which will allow the students to write their own online version of the course which will evolve with ever-better explanations of the concepts discussed.

What is immensely important with respect to all of these online courses is that every one of them is completely free!

As of this year, and, I predict, in vastly increasing numbers, you can now get some of the highest quality education in the world, online, for free. Anyone, in any country, with an internet connection, can register, log in and learn with some of the best educators in the world. This is mind-blowingly powerful stuff! I'm hugely excited to see what this will do for the younger generation of students (high school included) who are dying to get immersed in all this stuff but up until now simply haven't had the resources (not only the material, but also the interaction that this will now allow).

I should add incidentally that TED is also getting in on the act, having launched TED Education this week:

A discussion of online free learning would not be complete (and this blogpost is certainly not that) without a mention of Khan Academy, another incredibly exciting venture which looks to have the potential to revolutionise highschool education:

Anyway, I highly advise delving into these courses and even if something doesn't pop out now that appeals, I think that within a very short space of time, the vast library of online, interactive information available will have something to tickle your brainbuds.

So, for now, I have a little more to watch and work through tonight (for the last weeks I've been working through from about 8-1 or 2am at home, after work). I've taken on a pretty big load with all of these courses and am not aiming at perfection but for now just exploring the landscape of possibilities, so far it's a lot of fun...

P.S. I've shared this before, but this is always worth putting out there for anyone who hasn't already seen it. Sir Ken Robinson is one of the most wonderful rhetoricists I've ever seen, and I've had the pleasure of seeing him live at a conference in London. Here describes how the current education system is badly broken and needs a massive rethink. Is education killing creativity?:

Also, find out more here at Learning Without Frontiers, about how disruptive technology may be able to shift the status quo.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Beijing talks, Munich talks

Physically and mentally pretty drained right now. The week has been crazy and I am in dire need of another weekend. Today I've had a fascinating meetup with a researcher in memory who is, himself a frequent competitor in the world memory championships and is in the top ten in the world in a number of disciplines. His work is specifically about how memory techniques actually work, so we spent a very interesting couple of hours talking about this research and some of the fMRI studies that they have been carrying out.

I don't have much energy to write a lot at the moment (mostly thanks to my first squash game in seven years yesterday, which has left me barely able to walk) but I was sent some photos recently from last year when I was in China. I combined time at a conference at the KITPC with a number of talks to research departments about my work (at the ITP and the IHEP), but I also gave talks at a number of highschools around Beijing about frontiers in modern physics, about the history of the universe and the search for the Higgs boson and about why pursuing studies in physics is a valuable thing to do. Without exception I had dozens of excellent questions and at one particular school I have now been made an official scientific consultant (voluntary) and so act as an external expert on science questions when they have particular problems that they want to find out about - I generally direct them to resources as well as providing my own explanations. This school is also trying to set up a regular visiting scholar program whereby scientists who come to Beijing to do research at one of the many departments there can also come to the highschool to talk with the students about their particular line of research. This initiative is really to get the kids interested in relevant research and to bring something more cutting edge to the curriculum.

Anyway, this week I was sent these photos from one of my talks where I was talking to about 200+ students from four schools around Beijing:

Anyway, this was a lot of fun and I hope to do the same next time I'm back in Beijing.

Two weeks ago I also gave a talk at the Munich Nerd Nite. The talk I gave was on atmospheric optics and it was the first time I'd ever given a talk in a bar. There, also was an audience of at least 200 though there was a lot more beer involved than at the highschools. This time the talk was recorded and so here is me giving what I normally give as an hour long talk in fifteen minutes, hence the rather fast pace of it. Also note that my explanation for the 46 degree halo is incorrect - it's got nothing to do with pyramidal crystals, but comes from a very particular refraction through normal column crystals. My talk starts about 3 minutes in...
Anyway, that'll do for now. I've got another hour or two of work to do tonight and then I'm going to have an early night!