Udacity: Blowing Away the Bricks and Mortar

A popular Stanford course on artificial intelligence that routinely attracts around 200 students, was recently offered free online to anyone who wanted to ‘attend’, writes Charlotte Allen in Has the Higher-Ed Revolution Begun?  The course attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries.

Former tenured Stanford professor and robotics expert Sebastian Thrun, and Peter Norvig, research director at Google (where Thrun also works, designing cars that drive themselves), teamed up to teach the course free online, including testing, grading and ranking the students.  About 20,000 completed the course, receiving grades comparable to those of the Stanford students who took the ‘bricks-and-mortar’ course.

The article puts the cost of a year’s tuition at Stanford at about US$40,000 pa per student, while the cost of the tuition for the 160,000 students, had they been charged, would have worked out at about US$1 per student.

It’s not the first time top universities have offered free courses online, but:

What made last fall’s Thrun-Norvig course different – and revolutionary – was its certification component. The two instructors were effectively warranting independently of Stanford that the online students who passed the course had learned as much about artificial intelligence and had been held to the same standards as the Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortar version.

Thrun, who resigned his position at Stanford a few days ago, is now setting up an online university he’s calling Udacity, which plans to offer high-quality courses that are either free or cheap, and hopes to attract hundreds of thousands of students.

What a fabulous development, opening up access to top-quality courses not just for US citizens, but also for people living in countries that offer very few choices, least of all the chance to attend anything like an elite traditional US university.

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CHARTER SCHOOLS: A DOVE AMONG THE PIGEONS

Education ranks high in the Business Roundtable’s priorities and has been the topic of a wealth of research that can be found here on our website. Our theme has been consistent: we must raise the level of our education performance.  One size does not fit all and more choice and flexibility is needed if we are to address New Zealand’s shameful rate of educational underachievement.

Just on 10 years ago then CEO of the US Edison Schools project Benno Schmidt delivered our annual Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture Reinventing Public Education in America.  Professor Schmidt is a long-time advocate of school choice and, in particular, of charter schools.

The pilot charter school scheme set out in the National-ACT Confidence and Supply Agreement announced earlier in the week is a potentially momentous step forward in the battle to break the mould and lift educational achievement in New Zealand.

The proposal has clearly set a cat among the pigeons, judging by the excited reaction of those who rose instantly to oppose it. Yet, given the huge numbers of children being failed by the current state education model, how could anyone seriously interested in seeing those children succeed not at least want to look objectively at the detail and the evidence?

The proposal, carefully expanded in an annex to the agreement, has all the key design elements our research indicates successful school choice programmes need.  These are summarised in an excellent report published in 2006 by the Education Forum (of which the Roundtable is a member) and the New Zealand Association of Economists.

The report, School Choice: The Three Essential Elements and Several Policy Options, (www.educationforum.org.nz) written by Stanford University Professor Caroline Hoxby explains the essential features of successful school choice policies and some optional refinements.

Professor Hoxby accords some blame both to opponents and proponents of school choice for spreading confusion by using the title ‘choice’ for a range of programmes that may be designed around the general idea of choice but do not have the essential ingredients, ie “the features a programme must have to tap into the powerful economic logic of school choice”. These are:

  • the freedom to open, expand and close a school in response to increased or reduced demand
  • independent management, so that schools are free to innovate in areas such as teaching practices, teacher pay, and school organisation, such as length of school days and years, and
  • funding on a per student basis, so that all schools (public, private, for-profit, non-profit) are on the same footing.

The National-ACT proposal has all these (albeit only a trial, so only the public and charter schools in the chosen area will be on an equal footing), and some very important refinements. These include:

  • the decision to focus on the most disadvantaged communities where educational underachievement has become entrenched, and
  • a requirement to accept all applicants, until the school reaches capacity, irrespective of ability. Where demand exceeds supply, entrance will be by lottery.

These two ‘refinements’ put paid to many of the arguments being hurriedly marshalled by opponents of the proposal, who appear to have not yet read it carefully. Indeed, the dramatic reaction this week of those in the education sector opposed to the mere idea of choice is concerning, given the failure of our current state educational model to bring about change.

Hoxby’s report brings in a great deal of compelling empirical evidence and examples to support her case, mainly from the US.  As we noted in a 2007 article drawing on the report Scoring Our Schools: What Makes for a Good Education?:

Among the 255 studies cited, the book examines the largest single point-in-time study involving nearly every one of the United States’ 4000 charter schools and its nearest public school. It finds that many faced numerous handicaps and obstacles, such as heavy regulation and less funding than their comparison schools. Despite this, the charter schools (with over one million students) outperformed their comparison schools.

Poor, Hispanic and African American students achieved particularly well, and outcomes improved as charter schools overcame start-up issues and were given more autonomy and funding. All the studies found positive effects on the academic achievement of some groups attending voucher schools and no studies found a negative effect on achievement.

Watch Hoxby’s talk Reasons for Charter School Success here.

Since the report was written the charter school movement in the US has mushroomed. Sweden’s highly successful nationwide choice model has long since achieved enduring support and inspired similar reforms in other countries, and the UK is currently introducing a charter-like system of ‘free’ schools which is already achieving positive results.  Eric Crampton’s blog this week assembles some of the many studies that demonstrate the achievement rates of charter schools.

Introducing Professor Schmidt for the 2001 Sir Ron Trotter Lecture Roger Kerr noted that:

Education matters not just because of its role in equipping young people for employment in an economy that has to compete with the best trained workforces in the world.

It matters even more because we want children to be confident, adaptable and happy citizens, to become scientifically and culturally literate, and to be taught desirable values and attitudes towards society and its institutions.

The goal remains the same today. Let’s hope this week’s announcement of the charter school project is the beginning of a real chance for at least some of New Zealand’s underprivileged children to achieve that life-transforming goal.  The business community stands ready to support that.

Roger Partridge
Chairman
New Zealand Business Roundtable