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Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 p.m.

UW joins Stanford, others; will offer free online classes

By Katherine Long
Seattle Times higher education reporter

The University of Washington is joining a massive, free experiment in online education that adherents believe has the potential to revolutionize the way college classes are taught, open up access to some of the university's most sought-after courses, and drive down the cost of a degree.

The university has signed a contract to provide an online startup called Coursera with courses in math, computer science, computational finance and information security. Coursera already provides free courses to anyone wanting to participate, although students do not earn credit, at least for now.

Coursera is "a huge experiment that is transforming the face of higher education," said Daphne Koller, a Stanford University computer-science professor and MacArthur grant recipient who co-founded Coursera with fellow Stanford professor Andrew Ng. The startup has been offering free courses for about a year, beginning with courses from Stanford University. This spring, it entered into agreements with Princeton, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania, to expand offerings to 43 courses. So far, Koller and Ng say, more than 680,000 students around the world have taken its courses, many of them professionals using Coursera to enhance their job skills.

Koller and Ng say Coursera's offerings are as rigorous as their live classroom counterparts. They are designed around new research in learning and represent a new way of teaching online, the two say.

Like many colleges and universities, the University of Washington has been offering online courses for more than a decade; it offers 16 degrees and 38 certificate courses online — but none for free. This is the university's first foray into free online education through what are called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

In addition to the UW agreement, Coursera announced Tuesday that it has inked new agreements with 11 other schools that also will provide it with courses, including Duke University; Georgia Tech; Rice University; University of California, San Francisco; the California Institute of Technology; Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; the University of Virginia; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and three international universities.

Ng, who heads Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab, said the courses developed by Coursera are more sophisticated and engaging than most of the online courses that have been available to date.

"There are real courses," Ng said. "There's homework and deadlines. This is a brand new medium."

Students take a Coursera course as one group and help each other using online forums. Courses feature multiple-choice tests with instant feedback, and in some classes, students grade each other's papers.

Raising new questions

Coursera is one of several online MOOC startups.

In May, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they were committing $60 million toward producing free online courses. And another Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun, is behind a similar venture called Udacity, which claims more than 1 million students.

MOOCs face a number of obstacles going forward: Still unclear are whether universities eventually will award credit, how cheating can be prevented, and what offering free classes might do to a university's funding. Koller said many schools, such as the UW, are participating because they have more qualified applicants than physical space to serve them.

"The University of Washington's mission is to educate people, but they're limited to how they can do that," she said. "This is reaching out to a much larger population."

Although the state Legislature this year directed the university to increase its offerings in computer science and engineering, the computer-science department still turns down more than half the students who apply for that major.

David Szatmary, UW vice provost for online learning, said the university has not chosen which courses to offer. The format is specific, with quizzes interspersed every five minutes, so the university will need to create the courses from scratch. Once the UW decides which courses to offer, "people will be working nonstop for a couple of months" to complete them, he said.

Most undergraduates take about 36 courses during four years, across a broad range of subjects, to earn a degree. Szatmary said it takes "a lot of self-motivation" to complete a course online. "You have to be very project-oriented," he said. "You have to go to a computer at a certain time, interface with your cohort, get assignments in on time."

Coursera also collects data on how well its courses are teaching students, in much the same way as successful high-tech companies use data-mining software to understand their customers, Ng said.

For example, embedded quizzes test how well each student understands key concepts, he said. When a student gets a question wrong and later answers it correctly, Coursera can analyze the data — the platform records every mouse click and keystroke — to figure out what the student did that led them to understand how to get the right answer.

Because Coursera courses teach tens of thousands of students — Ng's machine learning class had 100,000 enrollees, compared to the 400-person class he typically teaches at Stanford, for example — the startup is able to analyze which learning strategies worked for the broadest range of students. It's using that information to create a "best practices" model for how to design classes in the new medium, and then will give that information to its partner universities, Koller said.

She said even a year and a half ago, "people were somewhat skeptical and dismissive of online learning, because it was associated in their minds with lower-class offerings." But Coursera is working only with top-tier institutions, she said, and students "are being held to the same academic standards we require in our institutions, and these students are amazingly well."

Looking forward

Szatmary said it takes about $30,000 to develop one online course, and "you have to monetize this in some fashion." Coursera has outlined two models for making money: The company could take its entire course catalog and license it to a company for a fee; or it could be a kind of futuristic employee matchmaker, giving the names of students who do well in certain subjects to companies that want to hire people with those skills.

Under terms of the contract with the UW, the organization would get a 7 to 15 percent return of gross revenue under either scenario, Szatmary said. But Coursera's courses still would be free. UW computer-science professor Ed Lazowska said he believes Coursera courses from many universities will be woven into UW offerings one day, with students taking the classes online as homework and coming into a classroom for practice and discussions.

"The faculty will spend a whole lot less time in front of 50 to 100 people doing lectures," he said. "Students will learn things on their own."

"We see a future where the UW is educating not just thousands of students, but millions," Ng said, "and anyone in the world has access to the best professors, the best universities in the world."

As part of the deal announced Tuesday, Coursera is receiving a combined $3.7 million in investment from Caltech and Penn, with additional investment from current investors New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. The new money brings the total in Coursera funding to more than $22 million.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219


On Twitter @katherinelong


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