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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Two of the country's most prestigious universities are teaming up to put their classes online, for free. The partnership between Harvard and MIT is a $60 million venture. And it's part of a trend that's changing higher education.

NPR's Steve Henn, who's in Silicon Valley, tuned in for today's announcement in Cambridge and joins us now.

Hi, Steve. I guess that's the whole point. You didn't have to be in Cambridge.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: That's right.

SIEGEL: Harvard and MIT are just the latest prestigious universities to jump into free, online education. What's the big trend here? What's happening?

HENN: Well, there seems to be a bit of a stampede. This field is known as Massively Open Online Courses and recently, a number of well-known universities have jumped into it. And a number of companies out here in Silicon Valley have been founded to take part. So last month, Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania and Michigan announced that they began working with a startup based here, called Corsara, that will put classes online this year - ranging from computer science classes to public health to poetry.

Earlier this year, Sebastian Thrun, who is another Stanford professor - and one of the inventors of Google's self-driving car - announced he was leaving Stanford to start a company called Udacity. And he's hiring world-class professors from leading universities to create more free, online classes. And both of these companies grew out of an experiment at Stanford last year, where a group of computer science professors decided that they could put their classes online, allow students to take interactive quizzes, participate in online forums, and actually get grades.

Those classes drew hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world. And that sparked a lot of interest across academia, in trying to replicate that kind of model.

SIEGEL: So what is new in the model that Harvard and MIT have now announced?

HENN: Well, they're doing a couple things differently. First, they're creating a nonprofit. And secondly, both pledge that they're going to release their platform - their software - for free,when it's fully developed, as an open-source product for anyone to use. And finally, they're inviting other universities to use the platform and put their own classes online for free.

SIEGEL: Can you get a grade, or can you ultimately get a degree from taking courses this way?

HENN: Well, for now, you can get a grade. But if you go to the university and try to matriculate, you know, they're not going to count that class toward your degree. Right now, none of these universities are offering a degree program unless you pay. All of them offer degree programs online if you pay.

SIEGEL: Online education has been around for a while. There have been some ventures in this area that have been started - and failed already. Why now? Why is there this sudden explosion of interest?

HENN: Well, one of the reasons that it's exploding, I think, is because it's become so much cheaper and easier to put a class online. And that has combined with using technologies in new ways to make these online classes better. So I mentioned interactive quizzes before. There are comment forums, where the most interesting concerns rise to the top. And all of these tools have really made it possible to teach an online class with 100,000 students, and deliver a class that really has value.

I mean, in the early days of online education, basically, you had a camera at the back of a lecture hall, videotaping a lecture. This is really quite different.

SIEGEL: Do people talk about the shut-in, matriculating couch potato of the future who never leaves his or her bedroom or computer - to take an entire college degree?

HENN: You know, I haven't heard stories about that as much. But I have heard stories of students who are shut-in - either because of health concerns, or because they live in a very isolated part of the world - who are able to take classes this way. And while perhaps someday, there may be people who never leave their basement, I think at this point, there are many thousands more people around the world who really, this is a window that opens and allows them to see a bigger, broader piece of the world than they could before.

SIEGEL: Thanks, Steve.

HENN: Sure.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Steve Henn, speaking to us from Silicon Valley.

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