Top Universities Want You to Take Free Online Classes in Your Pajamas

Duke, Princeton, and several other schools are bringing their courses to millions through Coursera.
The nation's top colleges are offering free online courses to the masses. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Jul 17, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

Wearing pajamas to class suddenly doesn’t seem as much fashion statement as a reality. On Tuesday, a year-old company called Coursera announced that it will be providing at least 100 massive open online courses (MOOCs) to major universities across the country this fall.

Prior to today’s announcement, Coursera had originally partnered with Stanford, the University of California-Berkeley, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan. Now, Coursera will be offering courses to millions of students through newly partnered universities that include Duke, Rice University, Johns Hopkins, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Most universities will not offer credit for these courses, but that may change over time (the University of Washington does plan to offer credit for Coursera this fall). The difference in these courses compared to most online education is that they are far more interactive according to Reuters in an April article announcing the original venture:

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 video conference.

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.

More: Harvard and MIT Want to Educate You for Free

This Coursera announcement is exciting in that it’s an extraordinary way for top-tier universities to reach millions of students—including those in poverty-stricken regions—across the globe. Tens of thousands of students can enroll in one class, which is quite a coup for professors who are anxious to share their research. And thanks to better platforms and heightened technology, these courses are far more engaging and comprehensive than pioneering ones. Once relegated to straightforward computer, engineering, and math courses, the new MOOCs will cover subjects from liberal arts to medicine.

“This is the tsunami,” Richard A. DeMillo, the director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech told The New York Times. “It’s all so new that everyone’s feeling their way around, but the potential upside for this experiment is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved.”

At the moment, Coursera courses are free, and students who complete the course are awarded a certificate. If universities start offering credit, over time there may be a fee involved as professor interaction is increased to provide more substantial grading and to expand efforts to curb cheating (a huge problem with online courses).

“Technology is transforming education,” said Andrew Ng in an interview with The Huffington Post. “[Many people] would have never been able to take a Princeton or Caltech class—that may now change. Anyone in the world can now learn from these top professors...When a student takes a Caltech class online, they know it is of a high academic standard.”

How do you feel about colleges offering free online courses? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.

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