Online Education Grows Up, And For Now, It's Free Top universities are embracing free online education. Dozens of schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania, are now offering classes to thousands of people across the world. But what will this mean for the future of the classroom, and the brand of the universities involved?
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Online Education Grows Up, And For Now, It's Free

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Online Education Grows Up, And For Now, It's Free

Online Education Grows Up, And For Now, It's Free

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There's a popular class at Stanford University. It's called machine learning. And unbeknownst to Andrew Ng, the professor who teaches that class, it actually resolves a problem 7,000 miles away, a problem for 22-year-old computer science student in Kazakhstan named Askhat Muzrabayev.

ASKHAT MUZRABAYEV: So the problem was that our university is relatively small, it has around 2,000 students. And we didn't have artificial intelligence classes in my syllabus.

RAZ: Askhat explains that at his school, Suleyman Demirel University, there was no class like it on offer. So earlier this year, he went online to a site called Coursera and he enrolled in Stanford's machine learning class, all for free. He watched the lectures. He did the quizzes. He joined online discussions with students from around the world who could talk about the problem sets. He took the final, and he did great. He got 100 out of 100. And when it was over, Askhat received a certificate that said: You completed an online course at Stanford.

MUZRABAYEV: They sent it to my email address and it was in PDF format.

RAZ: And he took that certificate around Almaty, the capital, to different companies. He also posted it to his LinkedIn profile. And not too long after, job offers started to pour in, including from Twitter in Almaty, where he now works. Askhat is now one of one and a half million students who enrolled in one of the classes on offer from Coursera since it launched in January.

Now, none of this is particularly new. Online education has been around since the 1990s, but what is new is the speed and scale.

From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz. And our over story today: the online future of higher education.


RAZ: In less than a year, many of the most prestigious research universities in the world have started to jump onto the online bandwagon. Later in the program, we'll speak with the co-founder of Coursera. It's a tech company that's partnered with more than 30 of the top universities in the world, including Stanford, Caltech, Michigan and Princeton, to offer online classes from its course catalogue, all for free.

We visited one of those partner schools, the University of Pennsylvania, to find out how all of these changes could potentially transform the way universities operate.

ED ROCK: I think everybody now realizes that technology is going to change universities.

RAZ: That's Ed Rock. He's a law professor who's also the coordinator of UPenn's online program that was launched earlier this year.

ROCK: The choice that faced Penn when we were approached by Coursera was do you want to be part of that conversation, do you want to shape how technology is going to shape universities, or do you want to just hide your head and pretend it is not going to happen? You're used to teaching 50 or 100 students at a time. The idea that you can teach 30,000 students at a time is an intoxicating possibility.

If we had tried to do this 10 years ago, I think there would have been huge push back. I think now everybody recognizes that the Internet changes everything. And the question is, how does it work for us, how does it fit with the Penn mission?

RAZ: There are now three major online consortiums that offer classes from some of the top universities in the world, places like Harvard and Berkeley and Oxford, Stanford and many others. Coursera is the biggest, but Udacity and edX are also major players. Right now, each course costs the universities about $50,000 to mount. That includes a small stipend for the professor. But in the future, as we'll hear later in the program, nominal fees could make these offerings a lucrative possibility.

MICHAEL KEARNS: What we're going to talk about today is a classic paper from the late '60s.

RAZ: It's 10:30 a.m. inside a lecture hall at UPenn's engineering school. About 100 or so students inside look like they've just rolled out of bed. They're here to take Michael Kearns' popular course. It's called the networked life. And this morning, he's talking about a landmark paper that was written about four decades ago by Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgram. It's a paper that introduced the idea that we're all separated by six degrees. Kearns grabs a tennis ball to demonstrate how it works.

KEARNS: So now, I'm going to throw it back over here to Amanda. And everybody who knows Amanda, stand up.

RAZ: In just a few tosses of the tennis ball, Kearns can show how the students in that class are connected. Now, thousands of miles away, in any direction, more than 40,000 students are also taking Michael Kearns' course. They're not watching this class simultaneously. They're actually watching a slightly different version of the class that Kearns filmed earlier, and they can take that class at any time of the day. They can log on and get close to the same experience online. And while it's not live, it's all there at the touch of a button. And this is what it sounds like.

KEARNS: The road map for the rest of the lecture is that we're going to discuss the findings of two articles.

RAZ: Kearns designed the class to be taken over a period of 10 weeks. The actual lectures are just about 12 minutes long. There are also readings and quizzes and discussion boards. And once you've finished, you qualify for a certificate of completion, a certificate that is already worth full course credit at the University of Helsinki in Finland and could, quite possibly, come to be seen as a calling card to better jobs in countries around the world.

But what does it all mean for the way universities will operate 10 or 20 years down the road? I put that question to Michael Kearns.

KEARNS: If you ask me, you know, 10, 20 years from now do I think that places like Stanford and Penn and MIT won't exist because of this massive online content and education, I don't think so. Do I think access that the access to courses taught in those institutions will be widespread, pervasive and accessible to, you know, a much, much larger audience? Yes. And do I think that those institutions will change the way they teach in the classroom because of the availability of the content? I think yes.

So I think these places will be around, but I think we'll be spending much less time, you know, droning on at students in a passive way because, you know, why wouldn't you just as easily watch the video?

RAZ: It's just a short stroll along UPenn's Locust Walk from the engineering buildings to the Kelly Writers House, where a class on modern poetry meets twice a week.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Reading) And for an everlasting roof, the gables of the sky.

RAZ: About 40 students sit inside the room. Al Filreis is the professor. And today, the lecture is on Lorine Niedecker's poem "Grandfather Advised Me."

AL FILREIS: She was not a professional. She was informally educated, mostly self-educated.

RAZ: Now, most of the 200 classes available through Coursera are geared towards science and engineering students, but an increasing number of them are courses in the humanities like Filreis' poetry class. And while a few dozen fee-paying UPenn students are sitting in this room, 32,000 others around the world are also studying Dickinson and Whitman and Niedecker and Langston Hughes, and it's Al - he's known as Al - that they see on the screen. The only difference is the name. Online, it's called ModPo. There's an online bulletin board where those students can post questions. Al even hosts live Web chats with his students. Here's Al in one of those Web chats.

FILREIS: You have four ways to participate in - actually five. One way is just to listen.

RAZ: Now, the thing about Al Filreis is that he's physical. He moves around. He channels the poetry. He calls on students without warning. Sometimes he throws high fives around.

FILREIS: Absolutely. (Unintelligible).

RAZ: And this afternoon, when talking about Ishmael and Moby-Dick, he grabs one student's shirt to make a point.

FILREIS: I'm not sure I'd be able to grab the shirt of the 18-year-old in Indonesia who's taking ModPo, but I can do - metaphorically grab his or her shirt. So there are some things. I can look into the faces of my students and realize immediately that they're not getting it. But I can also look into the metaphorical faces of the ModPo people when they're asking questions that are silly or they don't quite understand. I can go back in there and explain it. I can slow things down. I can reorient my questions. Just a different set of skills.

RAZ: And some of Al Filreis' students - students he will never meet - are actually quite well-known, including Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the majority whip, who recently enrolled in that modern poetry class.

You're like a rough-and-tumble guy up there in the Senate. You know, you got to throw punches and take hits and you're taking poetry. Why poetry?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: Well, the Bears games only last about three and a half hours each week and I've got a lot of other time to fill. And seriously, I took a look at it and said, I never took a poetry course in college. And at this stage in my life, I should not be so ignorant when it comes to issues like Walt Whitman's poetry and Emily Dickinson and a lot of others. So I signed up for the contemporary and modern poetry course.

RAZ: And - but you're a busy man. I mean, you are the majority whip. There's lots of people to whip into shape. When do you find the time to do this?

DURBIN: Well, the actual class discussions that I can tap into any time of the day (unintelligible) for about two hours a week, really. I mean, you spend a little extra time doing other things, but it's not unreasonable. And when you think of all the miserable time you waste with reality TV and worthless shows on 150 different channels, you know, the way I see it, this is time better spent.

RAZ: How's the class going so far?

DURBIN: Good. I really enjoy it. It's - I haven't come to know my classmates at this point, so...

RAZ: Mm. It's hard, I guess.

DURBIN: Well, there are 30,000 in this class, so...


DURBIN: But in the meantime, I like the professor, and the five or six students in his class are worth listening to.

RAZ: Al Filreis is his name. We spoke with him, and he helped us out. We're going to give you a little quiz here. We went through the syllabus. And here's a poem that you've studied. And we're going to ask you to identify it for us. So let's listen to this one first.

FILREIS: (Reading) I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose, more numerous of windows, superior for doors, of chambers as for cedars, impregnable of eye. And for an everlasting roof, the gambrels of the sky.

RAZ: All right. Senator Durbin, who is the poet?

DURBIN: Emily Dickinson.

RAZ: He got it. All right.

DURBIN: It was one of our early ones, and I knew nothing about her, and I've really come to respect her. I mean, he's given us a number of her works. Here's the point. You know, I'm a member of the United States Senate, and if I go to church, people say, well, good, he has a spiritual side. If I work out of the fitness center, they say, well, it's good. Sound mind and a sound body. I think poetry fits into the same mold. This idea of trying to rounding your life out a little bit that you're not totally consumed with just political argument.

RAZ: Have you taken a, you know, quill to parchment and written your own poetry?

DURBIN: No. I've written quite a few speeches, but I've never really taken poetry very seriously. But I will tell you, in just a matter of two and a half weeks of dealing with this course, I read poetry differently. I used to go through The New Yorker and look for the cartoons and an interesting article. I stop and read the poetry now. And that might be a good thing.

RAZ: That's Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate majority whip and a Coursera student. He is taking modern poetry with Al Filreis at the University of Pennsylvania. Senator Durbin, thanks.

DURBIN: Thanks a lot.

RAZ: Now, there are still many kinks to be worked out - how to make sure no one's cheating, for one thing, and how to evaluate essays. Right now, most of the testing is multiple choice. In a moment, we'll speak with the co-founder of Coursera. Stay with us. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.



It's hard to believe that Coursera, the online education company we've been hearing about, was only launched this past January. Since then, 33 universities from around the world have signed up to be part of it. It was founded by two computer science professors at Stanford: Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller.

Coursera is a for-profit company. There are $16 million in venture capital behind it. So far, it's not making money, but its popularity has surged. In just nine months, one and a half million students from 196 countries have enrolled in its courses.

Daphne Koller believes that in five or 10 years from now, people are going to look back and wonder why universities ever crammed 500 students into an auditorium to listen to a lecture for an hour and a half when they could just watch it online.

DAPHNE KOLLER: But I think it's important to also remember that the role of physical institutions will still be important because there's still certain aspects of that experience that we can't currently replicate in an online format - that serendipity, that miraculous discovery that happens when people randomly get together and talk creatively about new ideas.

RAZ: All right. Let's talk about where Coursera is now. Thirty-three universities are part of this consortium. And we're not talking about any, you know, we're talking about the top universities in the world - 1.5 million students enrolled. We just heard from one of the students who lives in Kazakhstan. We heard from another one who happens to be the Senate majority whip, Dick Durbin.

What do you imagine Coursera to be in the future? Is it going to be a place where anybody can get a degree from any of these schools?

KOLLER: So our students are not getting degrees from our partner universities. They're getting education, which, I think, is a really important and valuable thing to get. And I think while degrees have a really important place in one's educational trajectory, we need to remember that one's progress towards a degree lasts maybe the first four or six years of your adult life and then you go off into the world and work on your job. And the world around us is changing so quickly that one's education can't stop when you finish getting your degree.

RAZ: But if it is going to be seen as an anachronism to shove 400 kids into a lecture hall, then why wouldn't Coursera be a place for people to earn a degree?

KOLLER: So I think there is going to be perhaps more and more of the degree that is taken in an online format, but I think there is still a tremendous value to a university education.

RAZ: What do you mean by more and more of the degree?

KOLLER: So one of the big motivations for the universities that are working with us and engaging with us is the fact that they want to open up more time in the curriculum for meaningful interaction between faculty and students and between students and their peers. And so if you can take the lecturing part and move it out of the classroom, all of a sudden, you've opened up room for a much more interactive engagement that can happen in the classroom - what's going to be called the flipped classroom model.

RAZ: In other words, the students would watch lectures online and then you would just go to class to interact with the professor and have a discussion.

KOLLER: That's right. You could work together in small teams on active problem solving. And there's multiple educational studies that show that this is a much better learning experience than just sitting there passively listening to a lecture.

RAZ: Let's talk about money, because this is a business plan, essentially. And you've got millions of dollars of venture capital behind Coursera. So presumably, there are people who want to see a return on that investment, how will you make money eventually?

KOLLER: So one idea that we've explored is to charge for certification. You can charge a modest amount for, say, a certificate, but then you can go and present to an employer or perhaps to an educational institution to get some kind of transfer credits. A second is by working with employers who are looking to close a skills gap. Because even though there is rampant unemployment in many parts of the world, there are still large numbers of jobs that are going unfilled because employers are having a hard time identifying people with the right set of skills.

And so by matchmaking between students who perform well in certain courses - with their consent only, of course - and with employers looking to hire such people, you can potentially make a win-win situation for everyone and then employers would basically help support this effort.

RAZ: So in a sense, you know, you might be able to give access to that data to corporations looking to find skilled workers. And they might be able to look through which students did very well in particular courses and how they contributed. And they could - this could be a recruiting tool.

KOLLER: That's exactly right. We would only do this with student opt-in for privacy reasons. But this is definitely a win for students who are potentially looking for new career opportunities as well as for the employers.

RAZ: We just spoke to Askhat, a student in Kazakhstan. He's taken two classes at Stanford. By the way, he did take your class. He said it was pretty good actually. He liked it.

KOLLER: Glad to hear it.

RAZ: He took his certificates of completion and he showed them to potential employers in Almaty, in Kazakhstan, where he lives, and through that managed to get a job at Twitter.

Is there a concern that could, in some way, diminish the brand of these universities, of the Stanford's and the UPenn's and the MIT's? You know, people might look at these certificates of completion around the world and say, wow, you know, you went to UPenn or Stanford.

KOLLER: I think any reasonably savvy employer recognizes the difference between I took one or two online classes that were offered by a Stanford faculty member versus I attended Stanford or Princeton or Penn and I got a degree from one of those institutions.

RAZ: There is some resistance to this idea that this information will just be put online and kind of create a two-tier kind of system. Have you encountered that?

KOLLER: Two-tier systems have been around for a long time. And currently, the second tier, if you will, are people who have no access to quality education whatsoever. But what we're trying to do and, I think, are succeeding in doing is improving the experience for all of the tiers. That is for the students within the University of Pennsylvania via this flipped classroom model, they're going to get a better experience by having more time to interact and engage with their professor.

And for the students who never ever would have had access to this kind of quality education from a place like Penn or Princeton or Stanford, they now have access to something. And it's not the same as the experience of the on-campus students, but it's a heck of a lot better than what they had before.

RAZ: That's Daphne Koller. She is one of the founders of Coursera, which is an online education platform. She's also professor in the department of computer science at Stanford University. Daphne Koller, thank you so much.

KOLLER: Thank you, Guy.

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