Top U.S. colleges to offer free classes online

Wed Apr 18, 2012 10:00am BST

* Courses to include mythology, neurology

* Trial course attracts 30,000 students

* Backing from venture capital firms

By Stephanie Simon

April 18 (Reuters) - Five prestigious U.S. universities will create free online courses for students worldwide through a new, interactive education platform dubbed Coursera, the founders announced Wednesday.

The two founders, both professors of computer science at Stanford University, also announced that they had received $16 million in financing from two Silicon Valley venture capital firms.

Coursera will offer more than three dozen college courses in the coming year through its website at coursera.org, on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to neurology, from calculus to contemporary American poetry. The classes are designed and taught by professors at Stanford, Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.

Coursera joins a raft of ambitious online projects aimed at making higher education more accessible and affordable. Many of these ventures, however, simply post entire lectures on the web, with no interactive component. Others strive to create brand-new universities from scratch.

Founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng say Coursera will be different because professors from top schools will teach under their university's name and will adapt their most popular courses for the web, embedding assignments and exams into video lectures, answering questions from students on online forums -- even, perhaps, hosting office hours via videoconference.

Multiple-choice and short-answer tests will be computer scored. Coursera will soon unveil a system of peer grading to assess more complex work, such as essays or algorithms.

Students will not get college credit. But Coursera may offer "certificates of completion" or transcripts for a fee. The company may also seek to turn a profit by connecting employers with students who have shown aptitude in a particular field, a spokeswoman said.

For their part, participating universities expect to benefit by boosting their reputation overseas, connecting with far-flung alumni and - they hope - bringing in donations from grateful online students.

"It will increase our impact on the world," said Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania.

In trial classes Coursera hosted this year, the production values were a bit rough.

Scott Page, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, filmed his lectures for a class called Model Thinking in front of an unpainted door in an addition being built on his house. Interruptions forced him to reshoot several segments - and as a result, he looks undeniably grumpy in some takes. A few of his online quizzes contain errors. His slides are sometimes hard to read. From time to time, his dog wanders into the frame.

Yet 30,000 people from around the globe stuck with the class week after week, doing the homework, watching the lectures and chatting with one another in lively discussion forums. "It's awesome," Page said. He has calculated that it would take 150 years of teaching in person for him to reach as many people as he did online.

A course Ng taught in artificial intelligence was just as popular: Nearly 25,000 students completed most of the work - and 13,000 scored high enough to earn a "statement of accomplishment" from Stanford. Some even translated the lectures into their native languages and posted subtitles. "People really get engaged," Ng said.

The concept does have pitfalls.

There's no way for professors to tell who is completing the work, so "doors are wide open for cheating," said Michael Winckler, a mathematician at Heidelberg University who took Page's course on models. It's difficult, he added, to replicate the collaborative learning that takes place in a traditional classroom when students puzzle through problems together.

Still, Winckler was impressed enough with the quality and rigor of the online class to let his doctoral students count it toward their required coursework.

As online education matures, students may be able to build their own first-rate college education for free through sites like Coursera, said Richard DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Institute of Technology.

That may make it tough for some universities to survive. "They can't assume a never-ending supply of students" willing to pay for a pricey campus education, DeMillo said.

But Phil Hanlon, a provost at the University of Michigan, said he wasn't worried the free offerings would cut into his school's appeal. On the contrary, he said the technology would enhance the campus experience. Professors could direct students to watch online lectures to learn the nuts and bolts of a given subject, freeing class time for hands-on activities that can't be replicated in cyberspace, he said.

The two venture capital firms backing Coursera are Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates, both in Menlo Park, Calif. Each invested $8 million.

(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver)