Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, Coursera.
Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, Stanford University computer science professors who started Coursera Photo by AP
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To secure a career, everybody knows they need a degree. Today's job market requires at least a bachelor’s and master’s degree. But academia isn't readily available to everyone. Many can't afford the tuition, for one thing. U.S. President Barack Obama said that he finished paying off his student loans only recently, and it is believed that the total amount of student debt in the U.S. is about a trillion dollars.

Outside the west, higher education is even less accessible. High-school graduates in third world countries can't get quality higher education for many reasons - low academic standards of their high schools, poverty, distance from the university, the need to support an extended family, social conservatism (particularly regarding women), or political unrest.

The good news is that the digital revolution may change that.

“There’s a tsunami coming,” Stanford University President John L. Hennessy said last March, referring to the change in the world of higher education. This tsunami is known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), a term that was born in mid-2011. Today, a variety of high-level academic courses are given by first-rate lecturers – for free.

Instead of paying tens of thousands of shekels or dollars for the privilege of attending a prestigious university, one can now pursue academic studies over the Internet. And no, these are not recorded lectures that have been uploaded to YouTube. These are real academic studies, complete with homework, exercises, tests, grades and a diploma at the end.

Although MIT has been putting up lectures and study materials on the Internet for more than a decade, the big breakthrough in net-based study is a more recent phenomenon. The new initiatives allow for a real learning experience, just like at traditional universities.

The reason for this has nothing to do with technology, since appropriate technology has been around for many years. It looks as though the new trend is the result of a great many good intentions, but also a great deal of ego and competition between schools. As the Talmud says, “Jealousy among scholars increases wisdom” (BT Bava Batra 20a). At present, the Internet allows people to study a wide variety of academic subjects at various levels, from enrichment courses to a full academic degree. Here are some examples.

Khan Academy

In 2006, Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT and Harvard University, wanted to teach math to his cousin, who lived overseas. He began uploading brief, basic instructional videos to YouTube. The videos became a hit on the Internet, and since then the platform has taken off. In the Khan Academy’s videos, which are 10 minutes long at most, one never sees a lecturer. Instead, the videos contain a colorful instruction board. As of now, the platform contains 3,300 videos on dozens of subjects, arranged in the structure of a course (level by level), which have received about 187 million hits so far.

Although Salman Khan is a gifted lecturer, his platform is more appropriate for tutoring and supplemental study. Also, the platform has not developed its exercise area all that much. The Khan Academy provides a kind of academic reward – dedicated students can earn badges according to the number of videos they have viewed, but the badges are awarded without tests. The project is non-profit, but receives a great deal of support from companies such as Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Coursera

Coursera is the most comprehensive study platform on the Internet and has the largest number of students. Recently, only four months after it was established, the company announced that it had a million users (12,000 of them are Israeli). The platform offers 123 courses, including world music appreciation, introduction to philosophy, and a course in the basics of funding (with 100,000 students). The project was founded by two lecturers from Stanford, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Within a short time, another 15 universities joined the project, including Duke, Princeton and the University of Virginia.

In conversation with TheMarker, Koller recounted the story of Coursera’s founding.

“My partner and I worked on the subject of online study as part of our jobs at Stanford. In the fall of 2011, we started three courses that were offered to the general public. When we saw that each of the courses had 100,000 people enrolled, we got the idea to take it further. We did a spinoff and opened the project to more of the world’s best universities.

“What was on the Internet until recently were videos of lectures, but not really courses. There were also paid courses meant for 30 people – not exactly something that would change the world. With Coursera, we proved that real courses can be taught on a very large scale We work with universities, and we don’t bring lecturers in through the back door,” she says, aiming a sting at Udacity, a competitor. “For universities, this is a display window – they give us the best lecturers.”

A course at Coursera takes place at a set time. When the course opens, a lecture is uploaded along with a weekly assignment, with a deadline of six days. After the assignment is turned in, the student receives a grade, which counts toward the final grade of the course. The lectures are about an hour and a half long, but they are divided into brief video clips lasting from six to 20 minutes. Sometimes students are asked to stop in the middle of a video to try to answer a question, and only then to continue viewing the lecture.

In her TED talk, Koller talks about the pedagogical advantage. When she asks a question in class, she says, 80 percent are still writing in their notebooks, 15 percent are surfing on Facebook and the wise guy in the front row gives the right answer before anyone else has had time to think about it. Frontal lectures are an attempt to make one size fit all, and Courseras offer a more personal program of study, she says: they make students practice the material.

Coursera is a for-profit project that has raised $28 million so far. In just the past several days, the platform launched a joint program with potential employers who are willing to pay the project in order to meet outstanding students. It creates opportunity for people all over the world, from Tibet to Rwanda, to open a door to quality education, she says. She tells about an email from a student living on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He had to leave university after a year to go back to his village and support his family. But he goes to an Internet café once a week to take one of the company's courses.

Udacity

Last January, Professor Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University announced his retirement. He did so after teaching a course in artificial intelligence for Stanford, over the Internet, to 160,000 students.

Professors still teach in the same way that they taught a thousand years ago, Thrun says. After that experience, he felt he couldn't teach frontally at Stanford any more.

Thrun is not only a professor of computer science; he is also a vice president at Google in charge of developing the automatic car. So it is no surprise that he announced his retirement at the same time as he announced the founding of a new learning project, Udacity.

Udacity specializes in the exact sciences, physics, mathematics and computer science. So far, its platform offers 14 courses, from introduction to computer science to courses that teach how to found a start-up, how to build a search engine and how to program a robotic car.

Udacity’s instructional methods are based on online video classes that allow students to join whenever they wish (there is no set date for the beginning or end of a course). The videos are brief – about three minutes – and at the end, the student must answer a comprehension question in order to continue.

Udacity is a for-profit project, but appears to have an original business model – selling resumes (with the student’s consent, of course) to companies. The platform has a partners program with 412 companies of various kinds, from start-ups to Fortune 500 firms including Google, Facebook and Bank of America. It should be noted that Udacity can provide more segmented information about its students than any other university. It can point out students’ strong and weak points, how many times they tried to answer each question and how long it took them to complete the course.

Another competing project, which focuses on computer science, is edX, which has Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley as partners.

University of the People

“We are a university in every way,” says Shai Reshef, the entrepreneur who founded University of the People, a non-profit, tuition-free academic institution dedicated to making higher education accessible to everyone. “We started the project three years ago and we are now beginning the fourth academic year. We take everything that is offered for free on the Internet and create a university from it. We use non-copyrighted content, our lecturers are volunteers, and among the universities that support us are NYU and Yale.

“What has happened on the Internet with MOOC is a wonderful phenomenon – the best instructors give courses for free over the Internet. But while platforms like Coursera are good at giving courses, they are not a substitute for an academic degree. They are appropriate for someone who completed a degree in computer science, for example, and now wants to add a course in artificial intelligence,” Reshef says.

Reshef's online university offers academic degrees in fields such as computer science and business administration with the idea that in this way, its graduates will have an easier time finding a job. As of now, the initiative includes 1,500 students and 3,000 volunteer lecturers (a 2:1 lecturer to student ratio). Each semester begins with 100 enrolled students and last for 10 weeks. Some 20% of the students taking part in the initiative connect using dial-up Internet, so the university's web content is solely textual. Each week, the lecturer posts a question which the students must discuss and at the end of the week they are given a quiz. In order to complete their degree, students need to complete 40 courses. At the end of this year, the first class of students will graduate.

The initiative is supported by big donors and foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as companies such as HP, which opened an internship program for UoPeople students.

When asked if the new platform is competition for the already established academic institutions, Reshef smiles. "Our students are survivors of the genocide in Rwanda and the earthquake in Haiti. We are not an alternative to Harvard or the Hebrew University – we are an alternative to those who don't have an alternative. There isn't a better use for the Internet than spreading information throughout the world."