The New York Times
March 4, 2012
for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls
by Tamar Lewin
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
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."
On Feb. 13, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which
has been posting course materials online for 10 years, opened
registration for its first MOOC, a circuits and electronics
course. The course will serve as the prototype for its MITx
project, which will eventually offer a wide range of courses
and some sort of credential for those who complete them.
The Georgia Institute of Technology is running an experimental
two-semester MOOC, known as Change 11, a free-floating forum
that exists more in the online postings and response of the
students - only two of whom are getting Georgia Tech credit
- than in the formal materials assigned by a rotation of professors.
Next year, Richard DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech's Center
for 21st Century Universities, hopes to put together a MOOSe,
or massive open online seminar, through a network of universities
that will offer credit.
Udemy recently announced a new Faculty Project, in which award-winning
professors from universities like Dartmouth, the University
of Virginia and Northwestern offer free online courses. Its
co-founder, Gagen Biyani, said the site has more than 100,000
students enrolled in its courses, including several, outside
the Faculty Project, that charge fees.
Experts say several factors have helped propel MOOCs to the
center of the education stage, including improved technology
and the exploding costs of traditional universities. "We
also now have the example of for-profit colleges that have shown
that it's perfectly possible to go to scale online," said
Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, an independent
Five years ago, George Siemens started a MOOC on what was happening
in open education, hoping to do for teaching what M.I.T.'s OpenCourseWare
had done for content: it attracted 2,300 participants, with
a syllabus translated into several languages. Mr. Siemens, a
professor at Athabasca University, a publicly-supported online
Canadian institution, said it was quickly apparent that the
format created distinctive social networks, as students carried
on wide-ranging discussions on their own.
"A lot of the relationships formed through that first course
are still continuing today," said Mr. Siemens, who is also
a facilitator of Georgia Tech's program. "What we found
was that in a MOOC, instead of the classroom being the center,
it becomes just one node of the network of social interactions."
The current, more technically focused MOOCs are highly automated,
with computer-graded assignment and exams. But there is still
plenty of room for social interaction. The Stanford MOOCs, for
example, included virtual office hours and online discussion
forums where students could ask and answer questions - and vote
on which were important enough to filter up the professor.
"In a classroom, when you ask a question, one student answers
and the others don't get a chance," Mr. Thrun said. "Online,
with embedded quizzes, everyone has to try to answer the questions.
And if they don't understand, they can go back and listen over
and over until they do." Just as a child who falls while
learning to ride a bike is not told "You get a D,"
but is encouraged to keep trying, he said, online classes, where
students can work at their own pace, can help students keep
practicing until they master the content.
"The goal should be to get everybody to A+ level,"
he said. Several students in Mr. Thrun's class last semester,
contacted by e-mail, said the MOOC worked for them.
Balakrishnan Srinivasan, 45, a computer engineer in Bangalore,
said he frequently replayed the videos, which made him "feel
as if I had a personal tutor." He earned a 94.8 in Artificial
Intelligence and has signed up for both Udacity courses.
Brian Guan, 44, a Malaysian-born software engineer who lives
in Palo Alto, Calif., offered his own utopian vision in an e-mail
interview: "I wish that the always-available, always-replayable
and free nature of this style of learning can help to elevate
education/knowledge for all of human kind."