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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

You may never have had a chance to attend an elite university, but now you can take some classes at one - online. Four major universities - Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan - are joining forces with a Silicon Valley start-up called Coursera. Together they plan to offer free online classes in more than three dozen subjects. NPR's Steve Henn reports the professors involved hope this kind of interactive online education could transform higher education.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Last year, when Andrew Ng, a computer science professor at Stanford, put his machine learning class up online and opened enrollment to the world, more than 100,000 students signed up.

ANDREW AG: I think all of us were surprised.

HENN: Andrew Ng had posted lectures online before, but this class was different.

AG: This was actually a class where you can participate as a student and get homework and assessments.

HENN: And get a grade. Not course credit but a grade. The class was interactive. There were quizzes and online forums, where teaching assistants, fellow students, and even Andrew himself answered questions. In the end, tens of thousands of students did all the same work and took all the same tests that Stanford students took. Thousands passed. Jim Plummer is the dean of engineering.

JIM PLUMMER: Stanford has always been a place where we were not afraid to try bold new things, often without knowing exactly what the consequences were going to be. And this is an instance of that, I think.

HENN: Now Andrew Ng and a Stanford colleague, Daphne Kohler, are launching a company called Coursera to bring classes from elite universities to students around the world for free, online.

DAPHNE KOHLER: Really by providing what is a truly high quality educational experience to so many students for free, I think we can really change many, many people's lives.

HENN: Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan will join Stanford. And two venture capitalists are investing more than $15 million dollars in the company. Kohler believes online classes could bring university education to millions of people who are now effectively cut off. But to do this, these classes have to be effective at teaching more than just computer science. How are they going to teach hundreds of thousands of students to write?

AL FILREIS: You've asked the right question, which is - you're really going to try to do a poetry course?

HENN: They are - and in fact Al Filreis is the guy they've roped in to doing just that.

FILREIS: Yeah.

HENN: Filreis is a poetry professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And starting next fall he'll be teaching Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, online for free. Now, he knows he's not going to be able to grade thousands of essays. But he wants people to think about the poems he's teaching and engage each other.

FILREIS: Poetry is really good in this setting because you can read it alone and get so much out of it, and be perfectly fine with it. The next step is hang out with some - just some intuitively smart people and collectively - together, collaboratively - lets read the poem together.

HENN: So what will a poetry class trying to engage thousands sound like? Filreis says it'll sound something like this.

FILREIS: Today we are going to be talking about a poem by Lihn Din. It's called "Eating Fried Chicken."

HENN: He's been hosting a poetry discussion podcast for years.

LIHN DIN: I hate to admit this, brother, but there are times when I'm eating fried chicken, when I think about nothing else but eating fried chicken.

FILREIS: So who's the brother being addressed in the first line?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Huh, interesting, I thought of that as, you know, Philadelphia-speak, maybe African American vernacular...

FILREIS: It could be anyone or it could be an African-American brother. It could be a presumptuous address.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was thinking the same thing, especially...

HENN: In his class this fall, Filreis will discuss poetry with a small group of students while potentially thousands of others make comments online. And Coursera's building as system kind of like Yelp that will let those students value each other's comments. The most valued and respected will rise to the top.

Filreis says he's excited to give this a try, and it's possible that this fall he could reach more students with poetry than he's done in his entire career.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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