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Coursera: Delivering a new era in education

Many of the top-tier colleges are now offering some courses on-line
Many of the top-tier colleges are now offering some courses on-line
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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Have you ever imagined taking a class at Columbia University while sitting on the beach in Santa Monica? Good news: The dream of online higher-education is quickly becoming a reality.

Coursera, the fastest growing internet education platform, added 17 more universities this week, bringing their total to 33. New schools include The Berklee College of Music, Brown, Columbia, and international schools like the University of London and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Coursera was launched only 5 months ago and has been able to grow rapidly because it leaves the heavy lifting (the teaching, curriculum, and quality control) to the actual universities. Other MOOCS (massive, open online courses) including Udacity, offer their own classes.

Co-founder Daphne Koller said that tapping into different universities is an effective way to cover the breadth of cultures, languages and teachable topics in the world, because each institution has its strengths. She added that the universities have been eager to participate in Coursera's education model.

"I think universities are actually quite attracted to the notion of this collaboration of top institutions, of peers – that they can all learn together how to teach effectively, and what is effectively a completely new educational medium," she said. "This is not just frontal instruction put on video. It is completely different.

Scott Page is a professor at the University of Michigan who has taught two terms through Coursera.

"Normally I'm sitting there, I'm six feet tall and I've got a 20-inch screen. Here, you've got a lot of people watching on their phone," he said. "It's a difference in terms of how much info you can present ... how do you make it come alive knowing that you're not going to have that responsiveness that you normally have in the classroom.

Page said professors must rethink how they relay information to students. Unlike a normal 50-minute or hour-long class period, Coursera courses are broken down into 8 to 15 minute blocks.

His first class had 40,000 students, and the second had 90,000. He received emails from students all over the world. Page said that with Coursera, he feels like he's participating in a global experience.

"You've got 40 people in a class when you're there in person; you can control the class, you know the class. Here it's just more like, 'Wow, let's see what happens,'" he said. "You're throwing out information in a way, and then people respond to it in directions you never could have anticipated and you can't possibly control."

Koller said Coursera is lucky to have enough funding right now, but the team has been looking into a sustainable source of funding. Though the education will remain free, Coursera may consider charging a modest amount for getting certification.


Can these courses match a true classroom education? Will platforms like Coursera catch on? Is there something to be said for face-to-face interaction?


Daphne Koller, Co-founder, Coursera, and computer science professor, Stanford University

Scott Page, Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan (teaches Model Thinking through Coursera)