MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to technology: Unlocking the ivory tower. NPR's Steve Henn takes us to Stanford where professors are making classes available online to thousands.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Last semester, Sebastian Thrun, who helped build a self-driving car for Google, got together with a small group of other Stanford computer science professors. And pretty impulsively, they decided to open their Stanford classes to the world, and allow anyone anywhere to attend online for free; take quizzes, ask questions, even get grades.
They made this announcement with almost no fanfare, sending out a single email to a professional group.
SEBASTIAN THRUN: Within hours, we had 5,000 students sign-up. That was on a Saturday morning. On Sunday night, we had 10,000 students.
HENN: Eventually, more than 160,000 students signed up for Thrun's class with Peter Norvig on artificial intelligence, or A.I.
THRUN: We reached many more students, Peter and I, in this one class than all other A.I. professors combined reached in the last year.
HENN: People from 190 countries signed up. Students from the Australian outback, Shanghai, Africa, the Ukraine, and all over the Unites States studied together online. After it was over, videos offering thanks flooded in.
JACK WISE: Hello, my name is Jack Wise.
MELODY BLISS: Hello, my name is Melody Bliss.
BOLUTIFE OGUNSOLA: Hi, my name is Bolutife Ogunsola.
JANINE COHEN: Hi, my name is Janine Cohen.
WISE: I am from Tallahassee Florida.
OGUNSOLA: University of Legos Nigeria.
HENN: All of these students and tens of thousands of other completed the class.
COHEN: I teach math, science, robotics and computer technology at a Montessori school.
BLISS: I am a disabled woman going through dialysis three times a week.
WISE: I'm 16 years old.
HENN: They took the same class Stanford students took, and they got grades. But they didn't pay a cent and they didn't get credit.
Jim Plummer is the dean of engineering.
JIM PLUMMER: I think it will actually be a long time, maybe never, when actual Stanford degrees would be given for fully online work by anyone who wish to register for the courses.
HENN: Stanford does give degrees for online work, but only to students who get through the admissions process and pay - often 40 or $50,000 for a master's degree. But technology could push prices down.
DAPHNE KOLLER: On the long-term, I think the potential for this to revolutionize education is just tremendous.
HENN: Daphne Koller is a computer science professor at Stanford and a MacArthur Genius Fellow. She's been working to make online education more engaging and interactive for years.
KOLLER: There are millions of people around the world that have access only to the poorest quality of education, or sometimes nothing at all.
HENN: Koller says technology could change that. She says it makes it possible in many subjects to teach classes with 100,000 students, as easily and as cheaply as a class that has just 100 students. And if you look around the world, the demand for education in places like South Africa is enormous.
KOLLER: In the University of Johannesburg, a few weeks ago, they had a very small number of places that were still open. And so, there were thousands of people parked outside the gates, sitting there for the gates to open, so they could be first in line to register for that limited number of slots. And when the gates opened there was a stampede.
HENN: Twenty people were injured and one woman was killed. Koller hopes in the future technology will make these kinds of tragedies preventable. In this semester, Stanford will put 17 interactive courses online for free.
Over the last six months, Sebastian Thrun has spent roughly $200,000 of his own money and lined up venture capital to create a new online institution of higher learning, independent of Stanford.
THRUN: The name is Udacity. We are committed to free online education for everybody.
HENN: Udacity is announcing two new classes today. One will teach students to build their own search engine, another how to program a self-driving car. Eventually, the founders hope to offer a full slate of classes in computer science, all for free.
Thrun believes Stanford's mission is really to attract the top 1 percent of students from all over in the world and bring them to campus. He says Udacity's mission is different: Free quality education for all anywhere. A sweeping disruptive technology.
Here's Daphne Koller.
KOLLER: What I think is clear is that this change is coming. And it's coming whether we like it or not. And so, I think the right strategy is to embrace that change.
HENN: Over the years, Stanford has launched dozens of disruptive technologies into the world. But now, administrators and professors here seem to agree it could be about to disrupt itself.
Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.