Q+A on revolutionizing online education

In July, Berkeley announced its partnership with the online education program edX. Based at MIT and formed in collaboration with Harvard, edX is a non-profit organization that aims to increase access to top universities and develop best practices for creating, delivering and scaling free interactive lectures to students worldwide.

Collectively called Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the new digital format also provides alumni and working professionals with the opportunity to stay current on emerging technologies. Several of the college’s faculty helped develop open-source MOOC platforms or were early adopters of the format.

Berkeley Engineer sat down with computer science professor Armando Fox, academic director for the newly launched Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education, to learn more.

Diana Wu and Armando FoxDiana Wu, dean of Berkeley Extension, and EECS professor Armando Fox head up the newly launched Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education (BRCOE), as executive director and academic director, respectively. (Photo by Noah Berger)How did this start?

Last semester a couple of Stanford professors were starting an online education venture and asked us to adapt our “Software as a Service” course for the online format. They had put together a number of ingredients, and there seemed to be something important there; the idea that this isn’t self-paced; there are deadlines. All of the students are working on the assignments at about the same time, and so they have forums where you can ask questions. Ultimately the students feel like they are part of a group.

What are the challenges?

There are some logistical challenges that we didn’t anticipate. We did figure out an easy way to install the required software on 28 different types of machines and 10 versions of Windows. And we can manually grade 100 students—it’s no picnic, but we can manage—but for 50,000 students, it’s got to be automated. We did some extra work to figure that out. 

Why is there so much excitement about MOOCs right now?

Cloud computing means that you can teach these courses in places where students have very modest computer facilities, for pennies an hour. Five years ago it would not have been the same: You could reach 100,000 students, but how do you get materials out to them? The software selection was a hassle. But e-books, plus cloud, plus online course equals something really exciting.

What do students get out of it?

Currently, Berkeley students get a letter saying that they’ve completed the course; down the road there might be other forms of certification. Berkeley Extension has been offering certificates of mastery for a long time.

So why partner with edX?

The decision to partner with edX is a strategic decision. Berkeley’s and edX’s philosophies are aligned: They both believe in open access and public service, and they both want to figure out how to improve on-campus education. This is a decision that has a long-term impact on the way we deliver education.

Head in the cloud

This fall, the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education introduced its first two edX courses, offering access to free online courses taught by renowned Berkeley engineering faculty to people around the world. Both courses are adaptations of popular campus-based computer science classes.

CS188.1x: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence

Instructors: Pieter Abbeel and Dan Klein
Artificial intelligence (AI) is at the core of many new technologies that will shape our future and transform science fiction into real systems. A modified version of the first half of an upper division class, CS188.1x focuses on behavior from computation. It introduces the basic ideas and techniques underlying the design of intelligent computer systems, with an emphasis on the statistical and decision-theoretic modeling paradigm.

CS169.1x: Software as a Service (SaaS)

Instructors: Armando Fox and David Patterson
This course covers the basics for engineering software. Students will learn to apply fundamental programming techniques to the design, development, testing and public cloud deployment of a simple SaaS application. Students work on weekly coding projects to learn about the latest methods of creating cloud-based applications.

For more information on course offerings, or to register, see edx.org.


Reach the editors at berkeleyengineer@berkeley.edu