12 universities launch free online education for the world on Coursera

Coursera‘s founders may have realized their vision to bring free online education to the masses far sooner than expected.

Just three months after raising their first institutional funding round of $16 million, the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers-backed startup has announced a partnership with an additional 12 elite universities, bringing the grand total to 16.

Starting today, the site’s 680,000 users will be able to pick and choose from 100 new courses in the humanities and sciences, offered by professors from universities like Caltech and Johns Hopkins.

Coursera’s founders say they are struggling to keep up with the level of demand from colleges willing to offer their courses on the video platform. “The movement is still relatively young, but I’m pleased we’re seeing so many of the best universities committing to teach online classes” Andrew Ng, Coursera’s cofounder told VentureBeat. “This proves we’re no passing fad.”

For the founders, it has been a slow road and anything but a fad. Ng and his cofounder, Daphne Koller — both Stanford computer science professors — spent years developing the technology to enable academics to teach to hundreds of thousands of students, rather than just a few dozen at a time.

A little known fact is that Ng is the man behind the Stanford Engineering Everywhere Project (SEE), which has been the destination of choice for millions of would-be programmers since its launch in 2008. Many of you tech entrepreneurs will recognize classes like “CS 106A”, a popular beginners-level course. SEE was the inspiration behind Coursera.

“SEE worked because we built up communities around these courses,” Ng explained. “Too often, universities had been putting up videos on the web and hoping for the best.”

Students can now sign up and get homework deadlines on Coursera. The community has proven so willing to work together that the median response time for any question is 22 minutes, far quicker than the time it would take a professor to return an email. In the near future, the site will offer users the option to leave comments and feedback about courses.

Ng said there has been little resistance from current students and academic bureaucrats so far, which is surprising considering that the average American undergrad spends upwards of $100,000 per year for a private education. Now, with sites like Coursera, their professors are teaching anyone with an Internet connection.

Coursera makes the argument that professors only have a fixed amount of time to dedicate to teaching per week, which is better spent on problem solving in small groups rather than a lecture. “Students can watch the video on Coursera the night before,” Ng explained. Then, they can show up to class for an in-depth discussion of the material.

The founders are part of a broader movement in ed-tech to democratize learning on a global scale. For this reason, they selected a university partner (Switzerland’s EPF Lausanne) that could offer a computer science course in French.  “In Africa, half the continent — the poorer half — only speaks French,” said Ng. “If they can access a wifi connection, they can learn to program and build tools for a better life.”

Coursera’s new university partners are Rice University, Edinburgh University, Johns Hopkins, Caltech, University of Virginia, Duke, University of Toronto, Georgia Tech, UC San Francisco, University of Illinois, EPF Lausanne, and the University of Washington.

Two of the universities — Caltech and University of Pennsylvania — made an equity investment in the startup, bringing the total amount of funding raised to $22 million.

Image courtesy of Flickr 

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