Students from around the world are learning online for free.
Coursera students aroundthe world,
via Skype, to get a sense of their
goals and motivations. I also signed
up for a Coursera course, Computer
Science 101, to see how it actually
felt to be a student on the platform.
Many enrollees, like Porios, were
following their scholarly passions.
Others were looking to change jobs
or start or expand a business. Sometimes they were doing it just for fun.
One afternoon, I spoke with Sophia
Naide, a 13-year-old eighth grader
in northern Virginia, who was taking the computer-science course
along with her mother. “I just think
it’s really amazing how you can learn
literally any topic for free,” she said,
grinning through her braces.
also reeled in Andy Rice, 33, who
owns a Minnesota company that
does weather forecasting for businesses. He tells me he “suggested”
that more than 10 of his employees
take the course (which they did)
and that the company’s predictions
have since improved. More curiously, when Rice had an open position in the spring of 2012 for a
mathematical scientist, more than
25% of the résumés he saw listed
Ng’s course. He sees them as people
who want to stay on top of the industry. “I definitely want to hire
people who are always questing
for new knowledge,” he says, “
because life’s not about what you
learn when you’re 22.”
until he’s earned “the equivalent of
a BA in computer science from Stanford.” And this casually expressed
notion—thatan employedprogram-mer now thinks he can earn for free
the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, for which Stanford charges
$41,000 per year—explains why free
and open online learning spells
turmoil for academia, with traditional educators left to grapple with
conflicting impulses: to protect
their turf, to get a piece of the action,
to use the technology to make campus teaching better. How they participate, and to what degree they
give online education their imprimatur, are questions with enormous implications.
1) Kenji Kawaguchi of Tokyo is
learning new research skills.
2) Christos Porios of Greece is
studying machine learning.
True, these students aren’t
typical. Of the initial 104,000 people
in Ng’s machine-learning course,
only 46,000 completed any assignments, and only 25,000 did a majority of the homework. (That attrition
rate is similar to what you see in
many for-credit, fee-based online
courses.) So only a fraction of those
who sign on for the coursework are
demonstrably engaged with it. And
yet, that fraction
comprises an enormous number of
people—which could grow far
greater as word gets out.
That seems especially true if it
means switching out of the career
you trained for at 22. Dennis Cahillane, a 29-year-old lawyer, tells
me he couldn’t get hired despite a
law degree from the University of
Chicago. So he decided to work his
way through several Stanford
courses on building databases
while he made one for free for a
For it’s not just Ng, Koller, and
a handful of VCs who think online
education will cause dislocation.
To Barbara Chow, education program director at the Hewlett Foundation, Coursera and its ilk are
essentially moving free and open
online educational resources “from
a side to a central aspect in the
transformation of higher educa-
3) Sophia Naide of Virginia
studies computer science.
4) Anuj Kumar of Bangalore,
India, is another ML student.
added, had drawn more than
Sandell recalls that he felt a thrill
in the pit of his stomach. With a
failed education startup on his record, he’d been on the lookout for a
solid education-technology investment since he became a VC in 1994.
“The rate of adoption made it obvious to me,” he says. Before the
plates had been cleared, he told
Koller he wanted to invest.
The test for Coursera will be to
find the right niche in the student
populace. Challenging courses like
Ng’s in machine learning clearly
draw the most serious and self-motivated students, many of whom
are driven to further their careers.
Kenji Kawaguchi, a 23-year-old
nuclear safety engineer in Tokyo,
signed up for Ng’s course at the
same time as Porios. He and a
friend who works in web advertising took the course together,
munching ham sandwiches and
swigging black coffee at a local café.
“Right now, I’m just an engineer
doing risk analysis,” he says. “But
in the future, I want to be a researcher directing projects, so that’s
my motivation to keep learning.”
not-for-profit. “I spent a lot of time
trying to teach myself out of books,”
he says. “Sometimes when you’re
trying to do an exercise, you don’t
know: Am I not smart enough, or
is it just too hard for me right now?”
At Coursera, the level of difficulty
was right, so he kept pushing himself. He also tapped fellow students
in the forums when he was stuck.
About a year and a half after he
started his self-learning campaign,
the political news blog Talking
Points Memo hired him as a programmer. As Cahillane puts it, “In
my job interview, I don’t think it
was, ‘Oh, you took the class, you get
the job.’ It was more that I’d learned
enough to have a conversation with
a real programmer and seem like
I knew what I was talking about.”
tion.” Starting with MIT’s Open-Courseware in 2001, universities
have increasingly seen the provision of such resources as an essential part of their public mission.
Indeed, hundreds of millions of
people have viewed lectures from
top universities for free online in
the past 10 years. But until now,
these resources have been passive,
like Wikipedia. They haven’t been
organized and sequenced for active
learning or paired with social media tools. More crucially, they
haven’t been offered with certification. That’s beginning to change,
says Chow, as for the first time traditional universities offering online
courses will certify that students
have mastered the contents.
Over several weeks in April and
May, I interviewed about a dozen
Cahillane says he intends to
work his way through Coursera
At issue now is how Coursera
and the established schools that
The machine-learning course
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