When Thomas Friedman Notices, Something Must Really Be Going On


A couple of months ago, a bunch of us at [x+1] started taking a free online course in machine learning taught by Stanford University’s Andrew Ng. It was an offer difficult to refuse: a company called Coursera is offering top-flight university courses for free, and Andrew Ng’s class is among them. Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times column offered up Dr. Ng’s experience as emblematic of a larger trend in higher education (i.e., online alternatives to an increasingly costly option for young students), but what caught my eye were the numbers.

Ng was quoted in the article:

“I normally teach 400 students,” Ng explained, but last semester he taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning. “To reach that many students before,” he said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.”

This blew my mind. I have been doing this kind of work for half my life, and I have never run into a group of more than 200-300 of us at one time – and that was at a SAS convention in Vegas! Now 100,000 people are taking this one course per semester!!!! I was immediately imagining a future when:

1. People at parties would understand my answer to “What do you do?” without my having to offer a hyper-simplified reduction (“statistical marketing” is the best I have come up with).
2. It will be easier to find talent in this business (good for building teams, maybe not so good for salaries).
3. A world where the business people I work with have some kind of reasonable sense of what you can and can’t do with statistics.

Realistically, these numbers need to be discounted for people dropping off because of lack of time, interest, and perhaps aptitude. However, this does point to a major trend in analytics: business people are increasingly aware that they need modern data analytics to function in the new, data-rich digital world. Given the tendency of digital entrepreneurs to flog us with buzzword-laden feather merchantry, we can also be assured of 5-10 years of “big data” blather, but I guess mimicry is the cost of increasing demand for our field.

One Response to “When Thomas Friedman Notices, Something Must Really Be Going On”

  1. internet marketing in miami Says:

    This was an interesting post. Where did you reference this from?


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