* Courses to include mythology, neurology
* Trial course attracts 30,000 students
* Backing from venture capital firms
By Stephanie Simon
April 18 Five prestigious U.S. universities will
create free online courses for students worldwide through a new,
interactive education platform dubbed Coursera, the founders
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
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
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
"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)