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For the first time a brick and mortar educational institution, Antioch University, will offer Coursera MOOCs (massive open online courses) for credit as part of a bachelor’s degree program. This announcement could be one of the first tremors in a seismic shift hitting higher education.

“A year ago, online education was something people would look askance at, as a not completely respectable form of education,” says Daphne Koller, Stanford professor and co-founder of online education site Coursera.”Now it’s something which every institution is figuring out how to use and how quickly.”

Antioch will offer local support and facilitation from an instructor wrapped around Coursera MOOCs.”Students get Antioch credits for an Antioch course,” Koller explains “but the Antioch course makes extensive use of these pre-existing, high-quality, on-line materials. It’s like teaching a course from a very rich text-book”

Coursera has come along way since its launch a mere nine months ago. The site has educated 1.75 million students (I am one of them. I took co-founder Andrew Ng’s 3-month Machine Learning course) and offers 200 courses from 33 top universities. It’s not all IT and business either, although the Introduction to Finance course is the site’s most popular with 130,000 enrolements. The Modern World: Global History since 1760 had 70,000 takers and “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry“, which Koller says is a hard sell even within universities, boasted 33,000 students. One third of students come from the U.S followed by India, Brazil, Russia, Canada and the UK.

Coursera addresses some of the biggest problem in education: the lack of capacity in many areas of the world, the soaring cost of university education in Western countries and the drop-out rate in the U.S, which can have serious financial consequences for students. “If you don’t complete your degree your return on investment is negative, ” Koller states. “It’s important to give people the opportunity to made headway in a low-cost, low-risk way.” In fast-growing economies like India and Brazil where tradition institutions simply cannot scale to meet the demand for graduates, education may take on completely new forms. “Some of those countries will leapfrog brick and mortar institutions in the way that those countries have leapfrogged landlines and moved directly into cellular,” says Koller.

The teaching revolution won’t just happen abroad. Online education will also change how students are educated on-campus in the U.S. “In 10 years or sooner we will look back at the days when we shoveled 300 students into an auditorium to lecture at for 3 hours a week as ‘Wow! I can’t believe we actually did it that way.’ ”

Koller told me that teaching online and offline are completely different paradigms with different strengths. Trying to replicate face-to-face teaching online was never going to work. Online courses have flexible timetables and operate on a different scale. Scale can actually be an advantage online since students form diverse and cooperative communities which help each other to learn. From this point of view “Larger classes are, in fact, better than smaller ones,” Koller explains. 

The Antioch announcement is also the first stage in building Coursera’s business model. Institutions will be able to license Coursera’s materials and integrate them into their own offerings. Other revenue-generating features likely to be offered are charges for course completion certificates and employer referrals, where employers pay for introductions to graduates of relevant Coursera courses. This could be a good investment. The top three data scientists on Big data competition site Kaggle, for example, are all graduates of Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning course on Coursera.

Revenue would also allow Coursera to pay the universities, and by extension, the instructors who create the online course materials. Could Coursera create global professorial “rock stars” in the way that the gramophone allowed musicians to reach a global audience?

While Coursera needs to be self-sustaining and has already raised $16 million in funding, Koller still sees it as primarily a social enterprise whose objective is educating the world. “In 3 years I would like to offer most of the curriculum in most disciplines, from the best universities, to everyone around the world for free. Wouldn’t that be really cool?”

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