Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Stanford AI Class

I was one of the many thousands who took part in the online Stanford AI class -- in my case as much to find out about how they'd make the class work as in order to learn some of the AI topics I missed out on as an undergrad way back when.  Now that it's over, here are a few thoughts:

I'll put my conclusion first. Large online classes like these won't replace local university courses; they will transform them. More and more, university lecturers are going to become content curators and facilitators, and they're going to need to write less and less of their own presentation material.

Of course, mine is a slightly biased view as the Intelligent Book, the interactive cloud teaching software I've been developing, makes it very easy to incorporate third party material like this into a lecture course.  And as you read through this, you'll sense a certain "this is why we need Intelligent Books" theme in my comments!

Anyway, into detail on what I thought of the course...

The video lectures, which were like video-recorded personal tutorials, worked very well indeed. They were clear, concise, engaging, and had the feel of being in a small class rather than a large one. Thrun and Norvig are excellent communicators and very interesting to listen to. The fact that it was an ongoing course (everyone working to a schedule), was good motivation to make time to watch the videos and do the quizzes.  That's the good news, and it really is very very good news indeed.

But every class has its flaws.  So what were this one's?

Well, the class interaction and quizzes were simplistic, both in style and content.  For instance, some of the final exam's questions on computer vision weren't about artificial intelligence at all, but were simple early high school physics questions about the optics. An object that's yay big is yay distant from a camera with a focal length of such-and-such, what's the size of the image on the image plane? Here are three objects in a scene; this camera sees them in this order, what order do they appear to be in to these other cameras that are looking at the scene from different angles?

I tend to think that while the videos are very effective for presenting a topic, they aren't so efficient for quizzes and reference.  For reference, looking up that formula just to check you've got it right, seeking within a video to find the point it was on-screen is much slower than flicking back through text.  For quizzes, the format they used only supported tick-the-box and fill-in-the-box questions, but nonetheless required the lecturers to spend time recording a video introduction for each question.

(So, this is already one area where I see the Intelligent Book bringing an advantage -- it helps courses to use a plurality of different kinds of content.  Hop from the video to the notes, to the quiz, to the advice...)

The interaction between class-members was essentially limited to forums and whatever students organised off-line. The videos were pre-recorded, so of course there wasn't much in the way of to-and-fro between the lecturers and the class, except in the "office hours" on Google Hang-outs.

This is unfortunate, as interactive teaching is very beneficial and is starting to gain traction in universities.  Eric Mazur, Bob Beichner, Rich Felder, and others in science and engineering education have been trying to encourage lecturers to interact with their classes more, and move beyond simple one-way transmission of material.  Having taught a class last semester using the Intelligent Book, with the students chatting, discussing, and giving feedback live on the lecture screen, and answering and discussing questions as a class, I genuinely missed the interaction.

So what do I think will happen next -- how do I think/hope this will change university engineering and science education?

Well, the videos really are excellent. So the first thing that will happen is that other universities will want to use these videos and others like them in their courses. Rather than Dr Joe Bloggs spend another two hours working on his PowerPoint slides for a class, he might be better off finding and showing an excellent video by famous presenters, and then spending his energy interacting with the class to further their understanding.

And I think that trend -- to use more third party prerecorded material and spend more time interacting with the class rather than preparing material -- will grow very quickly. Lecturers won't just enjoy easy access to good material; they'll realise that the lecturers who recorded these videos get a great deal of exposure and can become famous teachers -- producing the next great teaching video will become another route to increasing your academic profile. I think we'll quickly see lecturers competing to get their videos used in other people's classes.

And that, I think, means that traditional lectures will change. Short videos punctuated by class discussions and exercises, and linked to rich sets of notes and social material, will become far more common than they are now. But then, I'm biased, because that's just the sort of thing that the Intelligent Book makes easy.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Metrics for Intelligent Books

There's a post on metrics in Intelligent Books gone up over on the Intelligent Book's blog. 

Friday, 25 November 2011

Intelligent Book, Australian Innovation Challenge

I'm delighted to have been picked as a finalist in the education category of The Australian Innovation Challenge 2011 for the Intelligent Book.  (See the Weekend Australian today.)

The use of it on the Software Studio course this semester has been pretty successful, and the next step is to encourage others to use it on their couses too. More info is over on and the About the Intelligent Book blog.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Intelligent Book - now on a real course

This year I've helping out doing some teaching for the University of Queensland in software engineering subjects. During my PhD, I developed some teaching technology, and some of the (less rarified and academic) parts have turned out to be useful in teaching the course. Even better, there was an educational reason why the way we intended to deliver the course meant that we needed to use it -- so I don't need to feel too guilty about foisting my own technology onto the course.

Anyway, I've been blogging about some of the features and how they've been useful on a blog for the technology: theIntelligentBook.

So far, I've been happy with the progress - as features have gone in (I've been updating the technology in my spare time) it's turned out that yes they really are needed. Now, the next challenge will be to convince someone else they want to use it on their course too...

Monday, 25 July 2011

Google+, Facebook, Twitter... is it going to be like the early days of IM?

I've been reading a few news articles about whether Google+ will manage to defeat Facebook or render Twitter obsolete. Here's a bit of speculation, but I wonder if it's going to be more like the early days of instant messaging (IM).

In those days, some of my colleagues were on ICQ or AOL but some were on Yahoo Messenger but some were on MSN but some had started to move to Skype etc. And that meant a lot of people had to have accounts with all of them because of course you can't control which of those systems the person you need to speak to likes to use. And tools like Kopete would spring up to help you deal with your many different messaging accounts.

It's pure speculation, but I think that's the direction I see the major networks going in. Already there are people who are Facebook friends whose Facebook status updates come from their Twitter app. Meanwhile many Twitter posts are there to point me to blog articles on blogs that I could also individually follow using RSS and Google Reader. And the rise of those social communities hasn't, for instance, stopped me from sometimes needing to use much older forms of community: forums, mailing lists, even (for a course I've been teaching) newsgroups.

So one more social network does not necessarily mean death to the rest. At the moment, I don't see Twitter and Facebook following Bebo and MySpace into relative insignificance. Instead to me it means another system I'll need to have an account on (well, if someone sends me an invite) because people I'll need or want to listen to use it.

(Edit: Thank you, I am now on Google+. Dominic, I can't seem to message you to say I'd already accepted an invitation just before yours came through; thanks for repeatedly inviting me, you are in my circles.)

Thursday, 5 May 2011

AV referendum

Here are my (last minute) thoughts on Alternative Vote versus First-Past-the-Post, as someone who's lived and voted under both systems -- I've lived in both the UK and Australia.

First, if I was in the UK I would vote YES in the referendum.

The reason is that AV lets me vote for who I want to win, without worrying about whether I think they can win.  No more "Oh but in this constituency, its always been a two-horse race between X and Y so a voting for Z would be wasting your vote".

To knock out one myth, in theory it's not the extreme parties that benefit from AV -- it's the independents.  Extreme parties (pretty much by definition) don't have broad support, so they don't pick up many second preferences.  That should mean it's harder for an extreme candidate to get elected than a moderate candidate that everyone might put second.  But under First-Past-the-Post, a moderate well-liked independent candidate faces a daunting task persuading voters that he stands any chance at all of winning against the major parties, so under first-past-the-post many people who might want to vote for him won't because they think their vote will be wasted.  For me, that makes AV more democratic as the independent then stands or falls on the issues, not on gamesmanship about whether or not he can get enough other votes to be worth getting my vote too.

The side effect you do get in AV is the "How To Vote" card.  In Australia, parties don't just care that you put them first, they also care about who you might list second, third, fourth, and so on.  For example, Australian Labor (yes, it's spelt without the 'u') would much prefer you voted for the Greens second rather than the Nationals as a Green MP would be much more likely to support a Labor government in parliament.  So each party has activists stand outside the polls giving you pamphlets telling you not just who they'd like you to put first, but the numbers all the way down the list.  "How to Vote Labor", "How to Vote Liberal", "How to Vote Green", and other glossy pamphlets are thrust upon you on the way into to the polling station, in the hope of influencing your second and third preferences as well as your first.  And the parties do some deals with each other (especially with the minor parties) around where they put each other on the "How to vote" cards

But the thing is, as a voter, I can completely ignore those "How To Vote" cards.  So the side effect of AV is completely under control of the individual voter.  But the side effect of first-past-the-post ("Will enough other people vote for this guy that he's even in the race?  Am I wasting my vote here?") is bigger than any one voter and so there's nothing an individual voter can do about it.

In other words, you as an individual voter can stop the gamesmanship around AV, but you can't stop the gamesmanship around First-Past-the-Post.  To me, that again makes AV more democratic.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Unfortunate juxtaposition...

For some reason, the front page of the online Telegraph decided to run a pictorial on criminals' hairstyles today. Check out who looks like they're in the third row...

I mean, I know the Telegraph might not like Obama or Jobs, but what did the labrador do?

I guess the question is did they accidentally put it that bit too close to the images of their video items, or did someone slip a prank past the editor?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Humour: Children's belief in Santa is scientific

There's a famous cliché that gets bandied around if anyone has a hunch they can't quite prove: "Well, you might as well believe in Santa Claus". But here's the shocking flip side that for some reason we all seem to forget: When children believe in Santa, they are actually following the scientific process pretty well.

What? Surely that's ridiculous? Well, this is a humorous anecdote, but think about it for a second:

  • Every year, they conduct a falsifiable objective experiment: they put out an empty sock, a glass of milk (or something stronger), and a cookie. And every year they get a positive result.
  • They conduct peer review, asking each other the results of their experiments ("Did you get anything from Santa?") and all their fellow experimenters are also getting positive results.
  • They even validate their experiment against the reports of esteemed experts who have conducted experiments many times in the past (their parents, teachers, and other grown-ups).
  • And these days many of them have even set up cameras, and then seen video evidence of Santa consuming the cookies and milk that they put out.
Without fail, the experiment has always been a resounding success in every independent trial - far better than you can say, frankly, for a lot of real academic published experiments!

And of course the only reason they get the wrong result is because this time there really is a grand world-wide ongoing conspiracy to interfere with their experiments and falsify their results, and everyone is in on it! Forged videos and secret disguises! Evidence tampering, as Dad wolfs down that cooke! Deception by respected senior scientists (parents) they thought they could trust on a global scale!

Maybe there's a good cautionary tale for budding scientists in this. One seemingly sound but wrong assumption ("Surely not everyone I trust would lie to me about this?") can sink your whole experiment and leave you with an embarrassingly wrong result.