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Online University Courses Revolutionize Learning

By Kathryn McConnell | Staff Writer | 18 December 2012
Standing man holding laptop computer with woman standing next to him (AP Images)

Stanford University computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller started Coursera. The venture’s office is in Mountain View, California.

Washington — A revolution in higher education is taking place across the United States and the world.

The revolution is being led by the groups Coursera, Udacity and edX, which provide online university courses from some of the biggest names in postsecondary education to students all over the world at no cost.

The largest of the three — the for-profit Coursera — has more than 2 million students enrolled in at least one course offered by any of its 33 partners, including Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Duke and London universities.

The company was founded in late 2011 by two Stanford University computer science professors after they noticed that earlier in the year Stanford had enrolled some 100,000 students in online courses they had developed. “We … realized we needed to live up to the technology we’d developed,” said co-founder Andrew Ng.

He said free courses offered by Coursera partners democratize learning.

“Most students will never have access to classes from the top universities, Ng said. “Now, if they wake up tomorrow morning and feel like signing up for a Princeton, Caltech [California Institute of Technology] or Stanford class, they can now do so for free. I think that's just amazing!” Coursera’s more than 200 “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, range from the humanities to social and basic sciences, business, law, finance and engineering, Ng said.

He said that not charging even a minimal fee to take a course is important to the company, whose staff consists of about 30 people. “When I look at the neediest and the most vulnerable people in our society … to throw up a barrier preventing these students from accessing our content would just be a tragedy,“ he said. “I'm much more interested in educating people than in making money, and offering the courses for free is a big part of that.”

More than half of Coursera’s students come from outside the United States, notably Russia, India, the United Kingdom and Brazil, Ng said.

He explained that Coursera’s courses resemble those taught in person, with lectures (via video subtitled in Spanish, Chinese, Russian and other languages) and homework assignments.

Coursera so far has attracted $22 million from venture capitalists and from university partners. The funding allows the company to develop its technology and add more partnerships so it can reach more students, according to Ng.

He predicts that the company eventually may make a profit by introducing top students to companies wanting to hire them and charging the company for the service. It also could generate revenue by charging fees for university-branded certificates or by licensing course content, he said.

UDACITY

Another outgrowth of free computer science classes offered by Stanford is Udacity, founded in 2011 by three California robotics experts. A few weeks after its launch, Udacity had more than 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled in its first class, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. It now has about 1 million students in North America, Europe, Brazil and India.

Udacity bills itself as “a 21st-century university” offering interactive computer and business courses in units of a week’s worth of work. Its teaching method includes quizzes embedded into lecture videos and assignments with no due dates. So far, Silicon Valley–based Udacity has six educational institution partners, according to its website. It offers courses in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subject areas and business.

EDX

A third member of the online learning group is the nonprofit edX, launched by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in May with courses mainly in technical fields such as electronics and computer science. With its partners the University of California–Berkeley, Wellesley College and the University of Texas, edX pursues the goal of educating 1 billion students.

In December, edX added Georgetown University as a partner. Georgetown’s commitment to make quality education widely available informed its decision to join edX as part of its “technology-enhanced learning” initiative, said Provost Robert Groves. “We are able to live our mission in new ways and better understand what it means to educate the whole person … through the opportunities presented in this new and evolving space,” he said.

“This platform gives us new ways of understanding methods of teaching and learning,” he added.

More information about Coursera, Udacity and edX is available on their websites.

Young woman and man lying on ground with a computer, other young adults in background (AP Images)

University of Illinois freshmen Jill Marik, left, and Jeremy Vivit study on campus. The university has teamed with online education company Coursera.