Free Stanford AI Class is a “Beta” for a Commercial Launch?

When Stanford University’s School of Engineering announced its free Artificial Intelligence class last month, the news took the geek world by storm and even worthy of note in the New York Times. The initial news articles made it sound like another example of open educational resources — a movement popularized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to put course materials and recordings of lectures online for anyone to use. But with registration for the class open and more details posted on the class homepage, I’m not so sure.

To start with, here is a sampling of articles describing the class:

The course is an experiment in an idea called massive open online courses, where anyone with an Internet connection can take classes without paying tuition. The professors are recommending that students buy the class textbook, which is co-written by Mr. Norvig, and dedicate at least 10 hours a week to the course, which Stanford considers an intermediate-level class that requires some mathematical and programming knowledge.

- Stanford U. Offers Free Online Course in Artificial Intelligence, by Jie Jenny Zou, 2-Aug-2011, Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus blog

Stanford has been offering portions of its robotics coursework online for a few years now, but professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig are kicking things up a notch (okay, lots of notches) with next semester’s CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. For the first time, you can take this course, along with several hundred Stanford undergrads, without having to fill out an application, pay tuition, or live in a dorm.

- You (YOU!) Can Take Stanford’s ‘Intro to AI’ Course Next Quarter, For Free, by Evan Ackerman, 4-Aug-2011, IEEE Spectrum Automaton Blog

Dr. Widom [chair of the computer science department] said that having Stanford courses freely available could both assist and compete with other colleges and universities. A small college might not have the faculty members to offer a particular course, but could supplement its offerings with the Stanford lectures.

There has also been some discussion at Stanford about whether making the courses freely available would prove to be a threat to the university, which charges high fees for tuition. Dr. Thrun [professor and instructor of the AI class] dismissed that idea.

“I’m much more interested in bringing Stanford to the world,” he said. “I see the developing world having colossal educational needs.”

- Virtual and Artificial, but 58,000 Want Course, by John Markoff, 16-Aug-2011, New York Times

Curious about the class (to brush up on my AI undergraduate class two decades ago and to experience how Stanford could conduct an online class with so many people), I was one of the several tens of thousands that signed up for more information. On Friday evening I got an e-mail with a link to register for the class. I’m also one of those people that sometimes actually reads the terms of service before agreeing to them. That is where I found this:

KnowLabs, Inc. (collectively, “we,” “us” or the “Company”) has developed the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course website (registration available at the entry-point URL http://www.ai-class.com) (the “Class Site”) and the accompanying videos, course materials, exams, homework assignments, forums and other related documents and services related to the class (collectively with the Class Site, the “Online Course”) that is available subject to the terms and conditions described in this document and any other guidelines, rules or licenses posted in connection with the Online Course, including the general Terms and Conditions of Use. These Beta Terms and Conditions of Use (“Beta Terms of Use”) apply to the first class offered on the Class Site, or any website maintained by the Company which is designated as a “Beta” area.

We will provide you with, and you desire to receive, the first publicly available access to the Online Course on a non-commercial basis (i.e., “beta” access) to assist us in developing and evaluating the Online Course prior any commercial release of the Course (“Initial Course Offering”); provided, however, that your participation in the Initial Course Offering and/or use of the Online Course is subject to your compliance with the Beta Terms of Use set forth herein and the general Terms and Conditions of Use (collectively the “TOS”). Your continued participation in the Initial Course Offering and/or use of the Online Course evidences your agreement to be bound by the TOS and constitutes a legally binding contract between you and the Company.

Now this sounds more like an internet startup than a university experimenting with a new form of course delivery. In fact, if you go back to the New York Times article, you learn a little more about KnowLabs: “Part of the instructional software was developed by Know Labs, a company Dr. Thrun [professor and instructor of the AI class] helped start.” Know Labs is not listed on the home page of the course, but it is listed on the registration page.

There isn’t much to be found about KnowLabs. The domain was registered to Sebastian Thurun on May 20th. A Google search for KnowLabs brings up:

  • a blog post by Seb Schmoller in the U.K. that wonders about the role of Know Labs.
  • a blog post by George Siemens that wonders how the course will be taught.
  • a website called mangrin.org that contains the same splash page as the KnowLabs site.
  • the LinkedIn profile of David Stavens, Co-Founder, CEO at Know Labs. Know Labs is described on his profile as an “angel funded startup to re-envision and revolutionize education using the social web and mobile apps. We launched www.ai-class.com and attracted over 130,000 students in 190+ countries.” He was a research assistant working as a member of Prof. Sebastian Thrun’s research lab.

So here are my questions:

  1. The Terms of Service make no mention of Stanford University and the Frequently Asked Questions make no mention of Know Labs. What agreement exists between Stanford and Know Labs? Who owns the intellectual property created for this class?
  2. What material (lecture notes, videos, etc), if any, will be openly available after the course?
  3. Are there statements anywhere that distance this experiment from the open educational resources movement? There seems to be confusion in the press that the Stanford AI class is some form of OER, so clarity here would be welcome.
  4. Are the Introduction to Databases class and the Machine Learning class experiments going to use the same platform with Know Labs with the same conditions?

Mind you, I see nothing disagreeable with the terms of service, and still completed the course registration. I just wish there was a little bit more transparency in the relationship between Stanford, the instructors, and Know Labs.

(This post was updated on 04-Dec-2012.)