Free Education: Learning New Lessons

Ann McClure's picture

Top-quality teaching, stringent admissions criteria and impressive qualifications allow the world’s best universities to charge mega-fees: over $50,000 for a year of undergraduate study at Harvard. Less exalted providers have boomed too, with a similar model that sells seminars, lectures, exams and a “salad days” social life in a single bundle. Now online provision is transforming higher education, giving the best universities a chance to widen their catch, opening new opportunities for the agile, and threatening doom for the laggard and mediocre.

The roots are decades old. Britain’s Open University started teaching via radio and television in 1971, the for-profit University of Phoenix has been teaching online since 1989; MIT and others have been posting lectures on the internet for a decade. But the change in 2012 has been electrifying. Two start-ups, both spawned by Stanford University, are recruiting students at an astonishing rate for “massive open online courses” or MOOCs. In January Sebastian Thrun, a computer-science professor there, announced the launch of Udacity. It started to offer courses the next month—a nanosecond by the standards of old-style university decision making. He also gave up his Stanford tenure, saying that Udacity had “completely changed my perspective”. In October Udacity raised $15m from investors. It has 475,000 users.

In April two of Mr Thrun’s ex-colleagues, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, launched a rival, Coursera, with $16m in venture capital. At first it offered online courses from four universities. By August it had signed up 1m students, rising to over 2m now. Its most successful class, “How to reason and argue”, attracted over 180,000 students. Harvard and MIT announced they would each put up $30m to launch edX, a non-profit venture offering courses from Ivy League universities. Other schools have joined too.

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