A dozen major research universities including Georgia Tech, Princeton, Duke, Johns Hopkins and the University of Virginia announced plans this week to offer 100 free online courses that will enable millions worldwide to take the same classes as students at elite U.S. campuses.
The announcement by Coursera, a year-old company founded by two Stanford professors, represents a giant leap forward in the expanding inventory of what has become known as MOOCs — massive open online courses.
“I think this is the most remarkable social development certainly of the last few years,” said Eric D. Fingerhut at a Brookings Institution webinar Tuesday. The former chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, Fingerhut is vice president of education and STEM learning for the Ohio-based research and development firm Batelle.
“One of America’s greatest products is our higher education system,” said Fingerhut. “And we are opening it up for free to people anywhere in the world. You’d be amazed how many people have broadband connectivity, but didn’t have access to a University of Virginia course or a Stanford course. There are, in fact, people all over the world accessing for free that which only an elite, small number of people could utilize.”
Along with Coursera, the largest consortium, students around the globe now have the option of taking courses from edX, a joint effort of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Udacity, the brainchild of noted computer scientist and Google “Street View” co-developer Sebastian Thrun.
It was Thrun’s decision — inspired by the math tutorials created by Salman Khan and his Khan Academy— to put his Stanford artificial intelligence course online that revealed the enormous audience for virtual college classrooms.
A star professor at Stanford and a Google fellow, Thrun realized that he could reach far more than the 200 students in his Stanford classes if he created an online course. Thrun announced his intention to offer his course online without charge through a single email, expecting 500 takers.
The course drew 160,000 students, ages 13 to 70, from 190 countries, 23,000 of whom finished at what Thrun described as “Stanford-level quality.”
(One of the problems yet to be resolved is how to reconcile bringing courses free to the world for which elite universities charge students $40,000 in tuition. In fact, Stanford had offered Thrun’s artificial-intelligence class online for $1,500.)
Among the most dedicated students in Thrun’s free online class was an Afghani who spent his days dodging mortar fire and checkpoints and had only an hour of Internet connection a day to participate in the free class.
“Maybe, I’m just not cynical enough, but I just think that is such an extraordinary gift,” said Fingerhut.
“At some point, it will have to be monetized,” Fingerhut said. “And at some point, there will be fees associated with it, but the fact that our greatest universities are racing each other now to open up their curriculum to anyone in the world, not just students lucky enough to get into Stanford or the University of Virginia, I just think only good can from it.”
Thrun refined the online version of the class, spending as much as 10 to 15 hours recording a single lesson. Two thousand volunteer translators translated the class into 44 languages. Discussion groups sprang up at Facebook.
Thrun was teaching more students online than attended all of Stanford. At the same time that he was teaching artificial intelligence online, he was also teaching the course to his usual 200 Stanford students on the campus. But within a few weeks, daily attendance had dwindled to 30 students.
He asked students why they were missing class. The Stanford students told Thrun that they preferred him on video where they could rewind him.
Stunned by the appetite around the world and at Stanford for quality online classes, Thrun launched Udacity, an online university that now offers 11 free computer science courses.
While higher education has been the leader in online education, Fingerhut said there are efforts under way to entice high school students to take online college-level courses, including those offered at Udacity.
A decade ago, 50,000 students in k-12 schools were enrolled in distance learning. Today, the number is at a million, but the research thus far suggests that online courses are not as effective with younger learners.
“Is it perfect? It is not perfect yet. This is the stone age of this development,” Fingerhut said. “But it is an exciting development and it is changing the world.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog