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February 28, 2013

Online Universities Offer Free Classes to Millions

by Brian Padden

The academic world took notice in 2011 when a Stanford University professor offered an online course on artificial intelligence for free, and more than 160,000 students from around the world registered for it. Stanford’s success prompted other major universities such as Harvard and MIT to follow suit and that brought increased attention and funding to organizations developing free Internet-based education programs. 

An engineering class at Stanford University is being recorded as an online course. The university is offering 30 to 40 free courses online, and more than 1.5 million students have enrolled. There are regular schedules, homework and tests but those enrolled do not earn credit toward a university degree. John Mitchell, the Vice Provost for Online Learning at Stanford, says the university offers these course as a public service.

“We’re teachers. This is what we love to do. If we can see people around the world learning from us, that’s rewarding. That’s what gets us up in the morning,” Mitchell said.

These free courses are also meant to entice students to apply to Stanford or enroll in other online classes that are not free. While online education is expanding the reach of major universities, Mitchell says they will not replace the on-campus experience.

But David Stavens, who taught at Stanford and recently co-founded a free online university called Udacity, says a quality education is becoming too expensive for most people.

“It’s a good system for a lot of people but there is another set of people who are equally smart, equally determined, equally hard working but who don’t quite fit into the mold, and it’s an unfair system for them,” Stavens said.

While Udacity is a for-profit company, the vast majority of its courses are free and they are developed specifically for online students. They include short videos, followed by exercises designed to engage the student and reinforce the lesson.

Students can pay for video conference tutoring or use the free chat rooms to discuss problems with their peers.  

While the number of universities offering online classes is growing, some classes are free and others are not.  The Khan Academy is a non-profit free website that contains over 3,500 video classes in a variety of languages and is utilized by six million people each month.
 
Salman Khan founded the company. He says it wasn't difficult to recruit donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation by offering a quality education to everyone in the world.  

“Anytime, with so little incremental on your part, you can create essentially an unlimited potential on someone else’s part, I think it would be a shame not to do it,” Khan said.

Critics say there are flaws with online education, citing studies that show a higher drop out rate for online students. But proponents say the evolving technology is coming together to open up new educational opportunities as never before to millions around the world.