UAlberta, Udacity team up for online learning

(Edmonton) Education and machine learning researchers at the University of Alberta are joining forces with leading online education provider Udacity to further develop and refine methods for delivering academic courses online.

The U of A and Udacity signed a memorandum of understanding today that begins a research partnership for the collaborative development of systems for delivery, measurement and assessment of online learning courses and experiences.

Researchers from the university’s Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning—one of the world’s top five machine learning institutes—and from the faculties of education and science will join others across campus with expertise in online learning technologies and pedagogy to work with Udacity.

“This is an opportunity for us to explore and better understand online learning for the benefit of our students,” said Martin Ferguson-Pell, acting provost and vice-president (academic). “This is also an opportunity for our researchers to be part of building advanced learning solutions, based on their expertise in machine learning, pedagogy and assessment, that advances the field of online learning. This is not the University of Alberta jumping on the online bandwagon. It’s University of Alberta researchers helping build the bandwagon.”

“I very much look forward to working with the U of A,” said Udacity CEO and founder Sebastian Thrun, who joined Ferguson-Pell in signing the MOU. “The faculty at the U of A have a strong commitment to data-driven research for online education, and Udacity is excited to build on U of A's expertise in online testing and education. We also share a joint commitment to excellence and radical innovation in online education.”

In addition, the partnership calls for a pilot project to develop a few courses in the Faculty of Science that will be offered through the Udacity platform, with the expectation that at least one course can be taken for University of Alberta credit, which would set the U of A apart from all other Canadian universities.

“Many of our professors across several faculties have been teaching courses wholly or partially online and using various multimedia components. This pilot will help us build upon their experiences and expertise at the institutional level so that those faculty members who want to explore online learning can do so with as much knowledge and support as possible,” said Ferguson-Pell.

“Expanding awareness of the rigour and excellence of the University of Alberta, via Udacity’s digital platform, to a whole new world of students around the globe is a fantastic opportunity for the university and for Alberta. But what is most exciting is that with this partnership we can take a lead role in defining the next generation of the post-secondary learning experience.”

The Udacity project is one part of a suite of recommendations that have started rolling out across the institution for discussion and consultation. The recommendations are the result of several months of research, consultation and discussion across the academy by the Visioning Committee, struck by President Indira Samarasekera and co-chaired by Jennifer Chesney, associate vice-president of digital strategy, and Jonathan Schaeffer, who was then vice-provost and associate vice-president of information technology and is now dean of the Faculty of Science. The committee comprises faculty and staff members from several faculties and units and the Students’ Union Vice-President Academic. Discussion of the Visioning Committee’s work and recommendations will fan across the institution in the coming weeks.

“There are many, many conversations that will take place within our institution in the coming weeks and months,” said Ferguson-Pell, “but this is an exciting way to build upon what’s already been done and to tap into the extensive expertise of our experts in machine learning and education.”