SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A number of elite universities across the country, including Harvard, Stanford and MIT, have started offering some of their most popular courses online and free of charge. These MOOCs, as they're known, or massive open online courses, are available to hundreds of thousands of people at a time all around the world. And our math guy, Stanford University professor Keith Devlin, has recently finished teaching one. He joins us now.
Keith, your first MOOC, what was the course? How many students?
KEITH DEVLIN, BYLINE: So it was called Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. And it's the course that's typically taught for students entering university intending to major in mathematics or physics or computer science. And it's what's known as a transition course. it takes them from high school mathematics to beginning university level mathematics, which is a difficult transition because the nature of mathematics changes between what's done at high school and what's done at university.
SIMON: Keith, I understand there were 64,000 people who were logged in. What is it like to teach a class with 64,000?
DEVLIN: It was a wild ride. I mean, first of all, it was a huge amount of work to put it together in the first place, because everything has to be planned in great detail. And yet you need to retain the spontaneity of the classroom. But once it got going, it was wild.
I mean, obviously you don't have any close interactions with 64,000 people. On the other hand, you've got a very close interaction with a single person, because you're interacting directly as if it's that one person sitting next to you.
SIMON: Help us understand how it works. So a student logs on and...
DEVLIN: Most of the time what the students see is me writing on a piece of paper. I tried to simulate what it would be like for a student to sit next to me in my office at my desk and just work through problems.
It was all recorded as live. When I make a mistake, I simply erase and correct myself and go on, because I really wanted to let the students know what it would be like to sit next to a professional mathematician and work through some mathematics.
So the star of the show - if it's a show - is my left hand writing on a piece of paper and scribbling mathematics and talking at the same time.
SIMON: That'll be a Daniel Day-Lewis movie down the road, "Keith's Left Hand."
SIMON: And 64,000 people, and yet you can't see one of them fall asleep. That's amazing.
DEVLIN: That's right. And that's kind of nice actually. You know, people actually focus on the technology and the videos and things, but that's really not what MOOCs are about. What MOOCs are about are creating learning communities.
You know, people think that sort of YouTube lead to MOOCs. No. What led to MOOCs was Facebook, because Facebook made it acceptable to people around the world to interact on a very personal one-on-one level through social media.
And what MOOCs are really about are building learning communities of people. Once it gets going, the students help each other. And my job is simply to create an environment in which they could interact and help each other.
We should mention, students get a certificate when they complete your course online, but the credits don't count toward the college degree, right?
Correct. And I'm not allowed to put the Stanford logo on that certificate.
SIMON: And I imagine educators all over the world at all different kinds of academic institutions have to be taking a look at this. Obviously, at a time when resources and costs are of a concern - and when are they not, I suppose - this offers a hope of quality teachers reaching maximum number of students.
DEVLIN: Oh, yeah. This is basically what - those of us are sort of these pioneers in these courses. This is what gives us goose bumps, because we think for the first time ever anybody in the world with a broadband access can actually have a sense, a virtual sense, of sitting next to a world expert somewhere at Stanford or MIT or Harvard or somewhere. And that's really kind of a unique situation.
MOOCs are undoubtedly going to change the face of education in many ways. I don't see them eliminating physical universities. But a lot of the time at universities is sitting in a lecture room listening to someone give a lecture.
You know, it's amazing that that survived the invention of the printing press, quite frankly, because lectures really were invented because that was the only way to get the material when manuscripts were hand copied. And yet, the lecture persevered.
I think MOOCs are now going to knock the final nail in the coffin of the lecture, but what they're not going to do, I think, is knock the nail in the coffin of the seminar, the colloquium, where you sit around on the floor, or on chairs, or wherever, and talk to the experts and talk to each other. That, I think, is an essential element to that that's not going to go away.
SIMON: Keith Devlin of Stanford University, our math guy, speaking with us from the campus of Stanford.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: You can hear us online, too. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.