Friday, March 23, 2012

Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls

Very cool:

The pitch for the online course sounds like a late-night television ad, or maybe a subway poster: "Learn programming in seven weeks starting Feb. 20. We'll teach you enough about computer science that you can build a Web search engine like Google or Yahoo."

But this course, Building a Search Engine, is taught by two prominent computer scientists, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor and Google fellow, and David Evans, a professor on leave from the University of Virginia.

The big names have been a big draw. Since Udacity, the for-profit startup running the course, opened registration on Jan. 23, more than 90,000 students have enrolled in the search-engine course and another taught by Mr. Thrun, who led the development of Google's self-driving car.

Welcome to the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses — known as MOOCs — a tool for democratizing higher education. While the vast potential of free online courses has excited theoretical interest for decades, in the past few months hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing them as a path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs, without paying tuition or collecting a college degree. And in what some see as a threat to traditional institutions, several of these courses now come with an informal credential (though that, in most cases, will not be free).

Consider Stanford's experience: Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by Mr. Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. An additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos, with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.

Mr. Thrun was enraptured by the scale of the course, and how it spawned its own culture, including a Facebook group, online discussions and an army of volunteer translators who made it available in 44 languages.

"Having done this, I can't teach at Stanford again," he said at a digital conference in Germany in January. "I feel like there's a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I've taken the red pill, and I've seen Wonderland."


Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls

Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Sebastian Thrun, left, a Stanford professor, and Andy Brown, a course manager, recording in their studio in Palo Alto, Calif.

Published: March 4, 2012

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