Caltech Prof. Abu-Mostafa on what he learned from his MOOC course “Learning from Data”

Caltech professor Yaser Abu-Mostafa on the goals for his online MOOC course "Learning from Data", and how online courses are transforming education.

Gregory Piatetsky, Apr 5, 2013.

Yaser S. Abu-MostafaDr. Yaser S. Abu-Mostafa is Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Caltech, focusing on Machine Learning and Computational Finance. His PhD from Caltech received the Clauser Prize for the most original doctoral thesis. He also received the Feynman Prize for excellence in teaching. In 1987, he co-founded NIPS, the premiere international conference on machine learning today. In 2005, the Hertz Foundation established the Abu-Mostafa Fellowship in his honor. He taught an online machine learning course "Learning from Data" that attracted more than 200,000 participants worldwide, and co-authored a textbook on machine learning that became #1 bestseller in Computer Science on Amazon. He has served as scientific advisor to several corporations and start-up companies in the US and abroad, including Citibank for 9 years."

Prof. Yaser Abu-Mostafa recently answered these questions for an internal Caltech interview recently. See also a a related interview, where Prof. Abu Mostafa answers questions from KDnuggets.

Q: Your original goal for offering the course was to reach as many people around the world as possible and offer your course for free. Is that still your goal?

YA: As many people who have the background and discipline to take a real Caltech course, not just as many people of any kind. My goal remains the same, and the course being not-for-profit remains an absolute requirement.

Q: If you were starting this project knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

YA: Prepare the homeworks ahead of time, and get a lot of sleep ahead of time. :-)

Q: Any other lessons learned you want to share?

YA: Stick to your guns. Don't water down the course to increase the numbers. Make the course as interesting as possible WITHOUT compromising the rigor and the content. What matters is what the students actually learn and retain. This is real education not a video game or a popularity contest.

Q: What was the most pleasant surprise for you?

YA: The level of some of the people who took the course. Established scholars who wanted to learn about the subject, including a winner of the US National Medal of Technology. Postdoctoral groups at top companies. Truly accomplished people who enjoyed the academic learning experience.

Q: Any ideas on how online courses are transforming education?

YA: Opening doors to people who have no access and humanizing the top schools. I have more detailed views that are a bit speculative at this point.

Q: Advice to teachers thinking of doing an online course?

YA: If you are thinking about doing an online course, do it very, very well or not at all. It will be a huge time sink, and it pays off only if it is truly distinguished.

See also a related interview, where Prof. Abu Mostafa answers questions from KDnuggets.