Top Universities Expand Free Online Classes

May 3, 2012
Originally published on May 3, 2012 9:31 am
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Harvard and MIT are investing $60 million into a joint venture called edX. Its mission is to provide interactive university classes online for free to anyone in the world. It's the latest move by top universities to expand their intellectual reach through the Internet. And as NPR's Steve Henn reports, some are calling this effort transformational.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Susan Hockfield is MIT's president. She believes there's never been a better time to be in higher education.

SUSAN HOCKFIELD: You can chose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes.

HENN: One of the reasons' Hockfield loves her job and this moment is that for the first time, universities like hers are able to offer graded classes online for free. Together with Harvard, MIT is launching a new non-profit called edX to do just that. Its backers hope to reach millions, maybe even a billion of students.

HOCKFIELD: Online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally.

HENN: In the last few months, there's been a virtual stampede of Ivy League universities and professors online. Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, UPenn and Michigan are all working with a start-up named Coursera to offer more than 40 graded classes in subjects ranging from computers science to public policy and poetry. All these classes are completely free.

Another start up called Udacity is doing almost the same thing. Some of their classes have attracted more than 100,000 students each. But there's one thing none of these students will get: a degree. Sebastian Thrun would like to change that.

SEBASTIAN THRUN: I really want to reinvent universities for the future, and I really want to understand how can we use digital media in the best possible way to enhance the learning experience.

HENN: Thrun gave up his faculty position at Stanford to launch Udacity. Daphne Koller is one of the Coursera's co-founders and also a Stanford professor. She says these massively open online classes can transform hundreds of lives.

DAPHNE KOLLER: The grocery stocker who had thought he would end up his life doing exactly that. And by taking this kind of class, he realized all of a sudden that he can be more than that and decided to go back to school. So it's that kind of a story, where you've profoundly impacted people's lives that really makes this effort as worthwhile as it is.

HENN: Coursera and Udacity are set up as for-profit companies. They're both funded by venture capitalists. Harvard and MIT's project is different. It's a non-profit, and its backers promised to make the data they collect about online education and the software they develop available to anyone.

DREW FAUST: Harvard and MIT are institutions devoted to research.

HENN: Drew Faust is Harvard's president.

FAUST: Through this partnership, we will not only make knowledge more available, but we will learn more about learning.

HENN: It turns out, when 100,000 people take a class online and sit through quizzes and tests, you can find out a lot about which lectures and lessons are working and which ones are not.

ANANT AGARWAL: So, for example, we gather huge amounts of data.

HENN: Anant Agarwal at MIT says in an online class, you know exactly which lectures capture a student's attention.

AGARWAL: How much time are students spending on various videos and exercises? You know, what do they go back to? And so on. So all this rich data, this is big data, in its biggest form.

HENN: And it can help researchers figure out which teaching methods work and which ones don't. Over time, Agarwal says that data will make all classes - both those online and those at the old-fashion universities - even better.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.