by Eric Katz
When Stanford University used the internet to open up Andrew Ng’s computer science class to the public free of charge last year, more than 100,000 people signed up. That’s when Professor Ng got the idea for Coursera, an online education programme he has developed with fellow Stanford professor Daphne Koller and with the backing of $15m in venture capital.
Through the start-up, they aim to expand access to higher education via an online platform to those who would not otherwise have the opportunity, as well as create a profitable company. “This is the Facebook generation,” says Prof Ng. “Five or 10 years ago students would not have been ready for this.”
The programme’s classes are taught by Profs Ng, Koller and their colleagues at Stanford, as well as participating professors at the universities of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley. Each class is open to 100,000 students – for free. “We decided this high quality education that is only available to sliver of population should be available to everyone,” says Prof Koller. “Education is the great equaliser.” Prof Ng says he would have to teach his in-person class for 250 years to reach the same audience he can with one online class.
Prof Koller adds: “When you go to a professor and tell them that they will, in one course, be able to impact the lives of 50,000 to 100,000 students, that’s a very powerful thing.” To deal with the massive response that free classes from elite educators were likely to create, Prof Ng and Prof Koller developed a programme that allows students to evaluate each other’s work. When questions arise, students “vote up” the most relevant and interesting so they will get the professor’s attention.
The Coursera founders point to studies that demonstrate this “crowd-sourcing” method of evaluation is more likely to produce an accurate assessment then simply having one “expert” doing the grading.The two venture capitalist firms that have bankrolled the upstart company are Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates. Profs Koller and Ng say the investment has allowed them to focus on getting the company started without concerning themselves with revenues – although they do expect Coursera to be profitable in the future.
“By building up a website where people come and they want to be there and spend time there and they bring friends,” says Ms Koller. “There are ways to make that website revenue bearing and self sustaining.” She and Prof Ng are still brainstorming how to make this possible, but ideas include charging students who want to receive certificates for their studies, as well as creating a job-match programme between students and employers.
Other top educational institutions have opted to put some of their content on the web for free, such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who have partnered to create a programme called edX.
Alan Garber, Harvard’s provost, says the programme is as much about reforming the education process as it is about increasing access and opportunities. “Technology is giving us the opportunity to get under the hood . . . like we never had before,” he says. “We want to make sure we create this opportunity to rethink how we approach teaching.”
Harvard, MIT and the schools partnering with Coursera all seem to realise the delivery system for education is changing – and none of them want to be left behind. “There’s a tsunami coming,” Ms Koller says. “Everyone sees that. These universities realise they have to deal with the change, you can’t just ignore it.”