I think it’s the cusp of a revolution
The pitch for the online course sounds like a late-night television ad, or maybe a subway poster: “Learn programming in seven weeks starting Feb. 20. We’ll teach you enough about computer science that you can build a Web search engine like Google or Yahoo.”
But this course, Building a Search Engine, is taught by two prominent computer scientists, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor and Google fellow, and David Evans, a professor on leave from the University of Virginia.
The big names have been a big draw. Since Udacity, the for-profit startup running the course, opened registration on Jan. 23, more than 90,000 students have enrolled in the search-engine course and another taught by Mr. Thrun, who led the development of Google’s self-driving car.
Welcome to the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses — known as MOOCs — a tool for democratizing higher education. While the vast potential of free online courses has excited theoretical interest for decades, in the past few months hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing them as a path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs, without paying tuition or collecting a college degree. And in what some see as a threat to traditional institutions, several of these courses now come with an informal credential (though that, in most cases, will not be free).
Consider Stanford’s experience: Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by Mr. Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. An additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos, with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.
Mr. Thrun was enraptured by the scale of the course, and how it spawned its own culture, including a Facebook group, online discussions and an army of volunteer translators who made it available in 44 languages.
“Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said at a digital conference in Germany in January. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”
Besides the Artificial Intelligence course, Stanford offered two other MOOCs last semester — Machine Learning (104,000 registered, and 13,000 completed the course), and Introduction to Databases (92,000 registered, 7,000 completed). And this spring, the university will have 13 courses open to the world, including Anatomy, Cryptography, Game Theory and Natural Language Processing.
“We’re considering this still completely experimental, and we’re trying to figure out the right way to go down this road,” said John Etchemendy, the Stanford provost. “Our business is education, and I’m all in favor of supporting anything that can help educate more people around the world. But there are issues to consider, from copyright questions to what it might mean for our accreditation if we provide some official credential for these courses, branded as Stanford.”
Mr. Thrun sent the 23,000 students who completed the Artificial Intelligence course a PDF file (suitable for framing) by e-mail showing their percentile score, but not the Stanford name; 248 students, none from Stanford, earned grades of 100 percent.
For many of the early partisans, the professed goal is more about changing the world than about making money. But Udemy, a startup with backing from the founders of Groupon, is hoping that wide use of its site could ultimately generate profits. And Mr. Thrun’s new company, Udacity, which is supported by Charles River Ventures, plans to, essentially, monetize its students’ skills — and help them get jobs — by getting their permission to sell leads to recruiters.
“We’re going to have detailed records on thousands of students who have learned these skills, many of whom will want to make those skills available to employers,” said Mr. Evans, the Virginia professor. “So if a recruiter is looking for the hundred best people in some geographic area that know about machine learning, that’s something we could provide, for a fee. I think it’s the cusp of a revolution.”
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