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Stanford U. Offers Free Online Course in Artificial Intelligence

A prominent robotics professor and a Google executive are opening up admission to their popular Stanford University course on artificial intelligence this fall to anyone online, and they have even promised to issue grades and certificates to those auditing virtually.

The course—which is taught by Sebastian Thrun, a computer-science professor at Stanford, and Peter Norvig, director of research at Google—is among the largest at the university, with nearly 200 students typically enrolling each term. Those who want to join online need not register with Stanford officials or make their way to Palo Alto, though.

The online course will run in tandem with the physical class from October to December, which means that online students will be expected to watch the same lectures, complete the same assignments, and take the same exams as their Stanford counterparts. Online students will not receive credit or formal recognition from the university—but they will receive grades for their assignments and exams, and those who complete the course online will get certificates created by the professors.

The professors are unsure how many will sign up for the free online class, but interest appears high—more than 8,000 people have asked to be put on an e-mail list for more details about it since the course was announced late last week. Official enrollment hasn’t started yet.

Mr. Thrun said the purpose behind grading the online students is to encourage them to work as hard as the Stanford students to meet deadlines and watch lectures. The benefit of having the courses run simultaneously as opposed to simply posting the course materials after the fact is that students can interact. “We wanted to synchronize the community of people taking the class,” Mr. Norvig said. “Nobody knows for sure what the right way is for courses to be run online.”

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.

Mr. Norvig said that the course might appeal to students at universities that do not offer similar courses, to technology professionals looking to stay on top of trends, or to ambitious high-school students. The professors plan to streamline the online course by giving multiple-choice assignments and tests that can be graded automatically.

Both Mr. Norvig and Mr. Thrun are also planning to run virtual office hours for online students. “It’s not quite as good as being there in person, but close to as good,” said Mr. Norvig.

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