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Why America's Top Colleges Offer Free Classes Online

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Elite universities are throwing open their classrooms’ doors to anyone with an Internet connection—for free.

Why are colleges offering free classes?

They don’t want to be left behind in the digital revolution that has already transformed the way we consume news, music, and books. Stanford, Duke, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins are among the 16 universities that have partnered with a newly launched company called Coursera to offer more than 100 free online courses this academic year; MIT, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley, are following suit through a nonprofit venture called edX. Now people anywhere in the world can take Stanford’s “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking,” learn the “Principles of Obesity Economics” at Johns Hopkins, or have Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely lead them through “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior”—all without paying the $50,000 usually required to attend these world-class universities.

More than 1 million people from scores of countries have already enrolled in the free classes, which some believe could transform the mission and model of higher education. Anant Agarwal, president of edX, calls it “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.”

What’s in it for colleges?

Prestige now, and possibly profit later. Schools say they’re willing to give their product away for free so they don’t miss the chance to be among the first to develop new forms of education. “The potential upside for this experiment is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved,” said Richard DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech. One day the schools will likely try to make some money, too, possibly by charging students for credits or allowing companies to sponsor courses. But universities recognize that they could be jeopardizing their hard-won reputations and their time-tested business model, said Jason Wingard, a vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “You run the risk of potentially diluting your brand.”

How do the classes work?

Much like a typical college lecture course, but with an audience in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. At a time of their choosing, students watch videos of lectures by respected professors, and complete interactive quizzes and regular homework to prove they grasp the material. The Web videos incorporate graphics and virtual games, and students can pose questions and debate one another in online discussion groups. Professors say it’s thrilling to reach so many students at once, from teenagers in India to baby boomers in Indiana. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng, a Stanford computer science professor, recently taught an online class to more than 100,000 students. To reach that many people, Ng said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.”

Are the classes effective?

Some educators doubt that virtual classes can match the experience of face-to-face learning. Online education “tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue,” said University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson. There’s also an extremely high attrition rate: Of the 160,000 people who enrolled in a Stanford artificial intelligence course last year, only 23,000 finished the work. But the feedback that could improve these courses is just beginning to roll in, and there’s already some evidence that students who stick with online courses learn just as much as those in conventional classes. “This is the Wild West,” said Agarwal. “There’s a lot of things we have to figure out.”

Will this trend make college cheaper?

There are grounds for hope. Since 1985, U.S. college tuition rates and fees have grown by 559 percent. In theory, online courses could cut costs by enabling universities to outsource coursework to the Internet and do away with or share some academic departments. Fewer students would need campus housing and other services. Universities have so far opposed giving credit for free classes, instead conferring certificates that don’t count toward a degree. But that’s already starting to change, with the University of Washington offering credit for Coursera classes this fall.

Could the Web replace universities?

Not anytime soon. “Why do people pay $50,000 a year to attend an institution like Caltech?” Ng said. “The real value is the interactions with professors and other equally bright students.” Still, even a remote dose of elite education can have great value to students who have no chance of setting foot on an Ivy League campus. And lessons drawn from the courses could reshape how colleges approach teaching, turning the ability to offer a mix of online and face-to-face learning into the new gold standard for top-notch educators. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor who offers free online computer science classes, predicts that there will be only 10 higher-education institutions in the world in 50 years. “It’s pretty obvious that degrees will go away,” he said. “The idea of a degree is that you spend a fixed time right after high school to educate yourself for the rest of your career. But careers change so much over a lifetime now that this model isn’t valid anymore.” In the future, he says, people will return to college throughout their lives, updating what they know through online courses.

Every so often, we'll reprint something from our sister publication, The Week. This is one of those times.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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