Drop In! Top Schools from Berkeley to Yale Now Offer Free Online Courses
04/18/12 by Sarah Kessler
On average, it will cost $55,600 to attend Princeton, Penn, Michigan or Stanford next year. But now you can enroll in online courses at all four universities online for free.
The universities won’t just be posting lectures online like MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, Yale’s Open Yale Courses and the University of California at Berkeley’s Webcast. Rather, courses will require deadlines, evaluations, discussions and, in some cases, a statement of achievement.
“The technology as well as the sociology have finally matured to the point where we are ready for this,” says Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, the for-profit platform classes will run on.
“This is a group that didn’t grow up at a time when there weren’t browsers,” Koller adds. “They have the mental state that allows them to say, ‘I’m willing to get a good portion of my education online.’”
Coursera grew out of an experiment in Stanford’s computer science department that opened up a handful of classes to non-Stanford students via the Internet. The online students received a signed letter from the instructor (but no credit) upon completion.
Both Koller and her co-founder Andrew Ng taught classes in the experiment, which ended up enrolling between 100,000 and 160,000 online students in each class. Ng says that more than half of the 160,000 students in his class attempted one particular problem, and about 23,000 of them completed the work.
Koller and Ng are the second pair of Stanford professors attempting to scale the idea past Stanford. The first pair launched a portal for online classes called Udacity last year.
Stanford professors are not the only group pushing the limits of free, virtual education. University of the People, for instance, enrolls more than a thousand students in 115 different countries in its free degree programs. For-profit learning site Udemy has recruited professors from universities such as Stanford, Yale, Northwestern and Dartmouth to teach video-based courses on its free platform.
MIT announced its plans for online courses in December, though it doesn’t plan to launch a prototype until Spring.
Research suggests that online learning can be just as effective as classroom learning. In a 2009 report based on 50 independent studies, the U.S. Department of Education found that students who studied in online learning environments performed modestly better than peers who were receiving face-to-face instruction.
When it comes to creating open online courses that reflect the classroom experience, however, it pays to be a professor of computer science. Coursera’s founders are well equipped to solve problems such as automatic grading, peer grading and 1,000-student class discussions that make an online class size of 100,000 students manageable.
But no matter how elegant the solution, universities don’t believe their course offerings on Coursera will ever equate to the $55,000 classroom version — or they would not agree to give them away.
“I don’t think any of these universities think their value proposition to their students is the lectures,” Koller says, citing interaction with peers and professors as one reason students would still want to pay $55,000 for courses they can access online for free.
A startup called 2tor has helped universities such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Southern California monetize their virtual classrooms. Those programs grant degrees, but limit class size and charge standard tuition.
Coursera announced on Tuesday that it has raised a $16 million round of funding, which means that it will also be installing a business model at some point. But Ng and Koller say the company will not charge for classes.
“It opens doors to people who wouldn’t have had them opened otherwise,” Koller says. “Education is a real equalizer, even if it doesn’t come with a degree attached to it.”