I have been thinking about what to write in this post since the day I took the final exam of the Stanford Online AI Class. I have so many things to say (and still to do), that I have a mess of mixed thoughts in my head.
So, I apologise in advance if thoughts will sound a bit random.
That's what this class has been for me. I have learnt tons of new things, all thanks to the great work of prof. Thrun and Norvig. I digged into the amazing topic of Artificial Intelligence, and now I feel a bit more "round" as a Computer Scientist.
The final score? 98.7%. Not bad at all!
Probably the most amazing aspect of what those prof. have achieved, is to work with ~160-thousands students, from all around the world. Yes, we had indeed issues with servers going down on deadlines, and we didn't manage to do much programming (checking the code of such a massive class requires a re-thinking in homework-checking-approaches), but we still got lessons being delivered on time, a perfectly working and useful forum, a community of students discussing the lessons and so forth.
Being this the first of a growing number of Teaching-Experiments, I truly feel like having taken part to a tiny piece of History.
A Privilege and a Realisation
I was born in the south of Italy, from a family that was wealthy enough to raise 5 kids (I'm the first), but not enough to send us study farther than few kilometres from home. So I always looked at universities like Stanford (actually, Stanford in particular!) as my dreamland of study.
Being able to take part, even for just 1 class and only online, to a class thought by figures like Norvig and Thrun was a real privilege. I wish one day to drive to Stanford, find their office and just shake their hands (should I bring them a Pastiera? what do you recon?).
But, on the other hand, being able to follow, and perform also quite well makes me see that, after all, my modest University of Studies of Naples "Federico II" was not bad at all: with a smaller budget and less pompous name, it has been able to make of me a Computer Scientist that can compare himself to Stanford Graduates. A big thank you to the world oldest state university.
During this class I had discovered that I haven't changed much: to learn, I still need to take lots of notes. This is good, but also consumes tons of paper. And when I started I was not willing to waste paper in 2011 for class notes: I wanted to change approach.
I so decided to start writing my notes in an Evernote Notebook. What I didn't realise, was that I had unconsciously made a commitment!
My notebook "Online Stanford AI Class" has got very quickly popular, and people started to politely (and sometimes less politely) demand for notes about the classes, while the course was underway. Some were just thanking with comments on the blog, others posted corrections or highlighted typos. I quickly found a massive traffic coming through and I was not really expecting that.
I thank everyone of the users of those notes for the kind words, and I'm humbled that my private effort (I wrote them as my own reference after all), written in very poor ital-english, has been helpful to some.
YES, I KNOW: I still haven't published the notes for the last 2 classes about Natural Language Processing. When the Final Exam came out, and I realised no questions were related to that topic, I decide to focus on the Exam. Afterwards, I left for holiday to Italy. Hopefully I'll get around to write them soon. I really want to go through again those last lessons, as Norvig gave a very good basis to do work on concrete NLP problems.
A request to the professors
In the spirit of sharing and global-ness, I think is really important that all the data about the class participation and performance is made publicly available. After proper anonymization (of course!), we should get the details about students location, background and class performance. I'm sure tons of interesting data can be extracted and fact understood.
This was, indeed, one of the biggest experiments involving massive knowledge sharing: I'm sure there is lot to learn from those data about teaching in the modern world.
Just in case you missed, above is the video of a Google+ Hangout that has happened during the course, involving both the profs and Sal Khan of the Khan Academy: the topic discussed there fit exactly with what I'm mentioning here. I leave Khan to put it in way better words.
What I got as most important outcome from all this, is that now I have answers to some of the "curiosity" I got left from my University times, when I had to rush through the Bachelor Degree, and couldn't stay to do the Master (I needed the start working and make money). Yes, there are still advanced topics in the field of Machine Learning and Optimisation that I'd love to go through, but this is a start!
Why I don't study now by myself you say? Because it's not the same! I don't know you, but having someone teaching you a topic gradually, and setting up schedules and deadlines for you, forces you into a study mode that it's just very hard to achieve on your own. Don't you agree?
Job opportunity letter from Thrun
Yes, in addition to the learning, I also got an email from prof. Thrun about the fact that he would like to pass around our CV (i.e. the first 1000 of the class), as they are looking for talents like ours.
That is really great, even thought I just got a new job and I'm not really looking for a new one. Networking is always useful, even more if it's purely based on what I tangibly demonstrated.
Well, what else to say? I'm proud. That's what I can ultimately take out of this experience. I learnt tons and from the best, I performed well and I helped others do the same. Once in a while, it's good to feel proud of yourself.
Well, first of all I need to resume my work on PhantomJS: I have been (almost totally) away from the project in the last 2 months, and I still have stuff I want to do, and new things I want to investigate.
Also, I'm in the middle of a revolution, that is going to make me travel every couple of months across the Atlantic to work in Neustar Webmetrics. It's going to be quite a change and a life-changing experience.
Of course, I do feel like this course opened for me the proverbial Pandora's Box. Professors at Stanford are putting online more, very interesting courses, and I'm thinking about some of them: "The Lean Launchpad" it's probably a great one to follow at my age and career stage; also "Natural Language Processing" attracts me a lot, because we did just a quick dip from prof. Norvig and I want to know more; "Human Computer Interaction" sounds like a great way to compensate for the bad class I got at uni years ago!
So, in other words, I'm not going to roll my thumbs. 2012 is going to be a very busy year, full of new things!
See you around and... happy coding!