And with machine learning becoming “one of the more highly sought-after skills in Silicon Valley,” Ng said, corporate recruiters say just completing a single course can significantly boost someone’s salary and job prospects at companies where such knowledge is still in short supply.
“I bet many students are going on to [do] great things because of these courses [even if we never hear about it],” Ng said.
Why it works, and why it could change the world
Ng thinks the current incarnation of online education platforms work so well because they’re essentially nurturing the already-talented students who seek them out. Some professionals, he explained, take courses to learn skills such as machine learning or iOS programming that weren’t in vogue or didn’t even exist when they earned their computer science degrees just a decade ago.
Furthermore, with students able to learn at their own pace, there’s a lot of valuable information disseminated in the discussion forums.
Free access to the best teachers around doesn’t hurt either. Ng said he couldn’t teach his course so well if he hadn’t spent so much time living in Silicon Valley learning best practices from some of the smartest computer scientists on the planet. That experience lets him spend less time teaching algorithms for the sake of algorithms and more time talking about how one might actually apply machine learning in the field.
Ng says that’s a more important than just understanding the algorithms in a vacuum. He compares it to learning how to write a computer program instead of just learning the syntax of a programming language but not being able to string commands together into something useful. This approach isn’t entirely unique among the new order of online educators: On Udacity, for example, Google VP and Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, centers the Computer Science 101 curriculum around learning Python in the context of building a working search engine.
The value of this opportunity wasn’t lost on Tandalla. He said he can feel the passion that professors have even through the pre-recorded video lectures, and it feels good knowing you’re learning from the people who literally wrote the book on the subject you’re studying.
Who knows who’s the next Einstein
But ultimately, minting new data scientists — even Kaggle winners — is low-hanging fruit. Ng said we don’t yet know how much impact online educations platforms like Coursera can have. In all fields, there are talented people all over the world who just need an avenue to hone their skills and a chance to distinguish themselves.
“It makes me wonder,” Ng said, “if the next Albert Einstein is a little girl in Afghanistan who just needs [the opportunity to access quality education].”
(c) 2012, GigaOM.com.