Free On Line Education

The New Public Ivies

Will online education startups like Coursera end the era of expensive higher education?

By Will Oremus
                                                                                    Daphne Koller, educator, speaks during Session 3: Building Blocks, 
                                                                                    at TEDGlobal 2012 on Tuesday, June 26, in Edinburgh, Scotland 

                                                                                    Photograph by James Duncan Davidson.

It just got easier to get a free education. The startup Coursera, which was launched by two Stanford professors last year, is partnering with 12 major research universities to offer more than 100 free online courses in topics ranging from computer science to poetry. These institutions, which include Caltech, Duke, and the University of Virginia, join Coursera’s first four partners: Stanford, Princeton, Penn, and Michigan. Millions of people around the world are expected to enroll.

This is a big deal for higher education. Coursera and similar ventures, including Udacity and edX, have thrown open the gates to America’s best schools. These aren’t just videotaped lectures. They’re streamed in real-time, and they’re increasingly interactive, giving the professor the option to pause and instantly poll the students to see if they understand what she’s just said. They include regular assignments and multiple-choice tests, and Coursera is rolling out a program for humanities classes that would have students grade one another’s essays.

It is tempting to see this as the beginning of the end of the current model of higher education. Why would anyone pay tens of thousands of dollars for an education at a mid-tier college when they could learn from Ivy League professors online for free (or, at least, for cheap)? Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, a brilliant Stanford computer scientist, recently predicted that within 50 years there will be only 10 universities remaining in the world. He hopes Udacity will be one of them.

But Coursera has opted to work with existing institutions rather than compete with them. Andrew Ng, who co-founded Coursera with his Stanford colleague Daphne Koller, insists that their firm is meant to complement, not supplant, the traditional college experience. “Online education is absolutely not a replacement for the high-quality education that a top university can give,” Ng says. “Why do people pay $50,000 a year to attend an institution like [one of Coursera’s new partners] Caltech? The reason is that the real value of a Caltech education isn’t just the content. Content is increasingly available for free on the Web. The real value is the interactions with professors and other, equally bright students.

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