Christos Porios, 16, lives in Alexandroupolis, a small Greek city on the Aegean Sea about 20 miles from Greece's eastern border with Turkey. "My mother's a teacher and my father's a mechanic," he explains, adding that neither is particularly knowledgeable about computers—especially compared with him. For years, he's had free rein over the family PC, and he's taken advantage of the time to teach himself programming. Mainly, he uses sites like Wikipedia, YouTube, and the Khan Academy—a portal with thousands of short, free educational videos. "Yes," says Porios. "I would call myself a geek."
"At first they were like, 'You can't learn anything that way.' But they saw I was getting serious. I was learning stuff, and I liked it. They realized that 'real life' includes things like machine learning."
Last fall, as the Greek economy spiraled toward default and rioters filled the streets of Athens, Porios was glued to his computer, but not to follow the eurozone crisis. He was taking a free class in machine learning offered by Andrew Ng, a professor at Stanford University, over an online platform Ng developed with his colleagues
Machine learning is an emerging discipline of computer science that deals with the analysis of very large data sets. Porios found the class riveting. His parents were perplexed to see their son rush home from school to sit for hours in front of the computer. "At first they were like, 'You can't learn anything that way,' " Porios recalls. " 'You should be paying more attention at school, at your real homework, at your real life.' "
But after a few weeks, they came around. "They saw I was getting serious. I was learning stuff, and I liked it. They realized that 'real life' includes things like machine learning." Drawing on what he learned, Porios was able to participate in the International Space Apps Challenge, a virtual hackathon using data from NASA and other government agencies. He also began to "play with" data sets he downloaded from the World Bank website.
If one teenager in one small city in Greece can become a genius hacker through an online course, does it mean the world has changed? We have been hearing about the disruptive potential of online education for at least a decade now. Yet over the past six months, online ed has taken a giant leap forward. A number of new, high-profile ventures feature professors from elite universities offering free courses online. All of these courses have video and social-networking components. All have attracted millions of dollars in funding. And perhaps most significantly, all have drawn initial enrollments of at least six figures. Ng's course in machine learning, the one that Porios rushed home from school to watch, attracted 104,000 enrollees around the world. Ng was amazed. "It would take me 250 years to teach this many people at Stanford," he says. And so, just one month into the course, Ng and his Stanford colleague, Daphne Koller, decided to leave their tenured faculty posts and dive into online teaching full-time. In April, they launched their company, Coursera, with a $16 million round of venture funding. The backers include John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Scott Sandell at New Enterprise Associates.
Coursera founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng want to provide free college courses for the world's have-nots. | photo by toby burditt
Doerr et al. will have to wait a while before they recoup their investment. Like a lot of online enterprises in their early days, Coursera has captured lots of eyeballs but not, as yet, any revenue. If it does start making money, it is unlikely to have the field to itself. Still, Coursera has some advantages that leave it well positioned. It is the first to offer top-drawer courses in humanities and the social sciences, a particular bugaboo for online learning in the past. It has also managed to team up with more colleges than any of its rivals—a total of nine, announced this spring and summer, including Princeton, Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania.
The most intriguing aspect of the Coursera endeavor, however, is how quickly it promises to expand beyond a niche audience. All of the factors pushing Coursera and its competitors toward the mainstream of higher education are now crashing together. For starters, the newly minted knowledge-based economy is hitting a global slowdown, causing a spike in demand for higher education as people seek to retrain. This demand is running smack into the reality of the escalating costs of going to college and the attendant rise in student-loan debt, fueling anger and desperation among students (and demonstrations from Chile to Quebec) and trepidation in parents. The technology has changed, too. Broadband access is growing even in poor and middle-income countries, making online education both easily accessible and far more functional. At least 600 million people now have the ability to stream video, compared with only 300 million in 2007. "I think the potential impact is huge," says Michael Horn, who coauthored a book on change in higher education with Clayton Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation.
To Ng and Koller, Coursera's mission is simple and yet absurdly grand: to teach millions of people around the world for free, while also transforming how top universities teach.
And their business model? Well, they haven't quite figured that part out yet.
The face-to-face lecture dates back a thousand years. It still consumes hours of class time at even the best universities, and it doesn't scale up well. The lecture hall might be suitable for attending to a charismatic orator, but most learning benefits from give-and-take. And the greater the number of students in the room, the lesser the chance for interaction and, hence, for education in the classical sense of the term—educere, to draw out. As Koller, the Coursera cofounder, puts it: "When you're giving a lecture and you stop to ask a question, 50% of the class are scribbling away and didn't hear you, another 20% are on Facebook, and one smarty-pants in the front row blurts out the answer and you feel good." Koller and Ng believed they could solve the problem by doing something different online. "Why not take the 75-minute lecture," Koller asks, "break it up into short pieces, and add interactive engagement into the video so that every five minutes there's a question?"
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