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Stanford professors spin off company to support free online courses

An LMS for Elite MOOCs?
March 7, 2012

The Google artificial-intelligence guru Sebastian Thrun made a splash last month when he left Stanford University to start a company based on an A.I. course he made freely available last fall to tens of thousands of students on the Web. Now, two of Thrun's former Stanford colleagues who conducted similar experiments have spun off their own free online courses into a for-profit venture.

The engineering professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, who also ran free online versions of their Stanford courses last fall, have started Coursera, a company that says it wants to make "the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it."

The company currently serves as a platform for eight courses, centering on computer science with some math, economics and linguistics. Five are taught by Stanford professors, two by professors at the University of California at Berkeley and one by a University of Michigan professor. All of the courses are currently listed as free of charge. None will count as credit toward a degree at any of the professors' home universities.

Koller and Ng were not immediately available to elaborate on Coursera's business model, but the terms of use on the company's website suggest that it plans to trade in information. The terms stipulate that Coursera may use "non-personal" information it collects from users "for business purposes." They also indicate that Coursera may share personal information with its "business partners" so that registered students might "receive communications from such parties that [students] have opted in to."

Stanford appears to be collaborating closely with the professors who are teaching courses through Coursera. To help brainstorm improvements to the quality of these massively open online courses (known as MOOCs), the university is assembling a "multidisciplinary faculty committee on educational technology that will include deans of three schools, the university provost's office and faculty or senior administrators from across campus," according to the Stanford News Service.

Stanford is not the only elite university to focus faculty and administrative brainpower on the question of how to create inexpensive versions of its courses available to massive online audiences without sacrificing quality. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently opened MITx, a subsidiary nonprofit aimed at providing top-flight interactive courses online at a "modest" price. The MITx project is actively drawing on the creativity and expertise of the M.I.T. computer science faculty, with involvement from the university's provost.

The founders of Coursera may be counting on this trend to continue. A January job posting for part-time work developing, designing and programming for the company (referred to in the posting as Dkandu, apparently a working title at the time) suggests that it has ambitions of being the preferred partner for elite universities that want to take their courses online in a big way.

"We see a future where world-leading educators are at the center of the education conversation, and their reach is limitless, bounded only by the curiosity of those who seek their knowledge; where universities such as Stanford, Harvard, and Yale serve millions instead of thousands," the author of the posting. "In this future, ours will be the platform where the online conversation between educators and students will take place, and where students go to for most of their academic needs."

More than 335,000 people have registered for the five Stanford-provided courses in the Coursera catalog, which comprise courses in natural language processing, game theory, probabilistic graphic models, cryptography and design and analysis of algorithms. The three non-Stanford courses are in model thinking (Michigan), software as a service and computer vision (Berkeley).

All the courses offer students the opportunity to ask questions of the professor and teaching assistants, but none offer direct, contemporaneous interaction with the instructors. "There is a Q&A forum in which students rank questions and answers, so that the most important questions and the best answers bubble to the top," reads a note on the description pages for most of the courses. "Teaching staff will monitor these forums, so that important questions not answered by other students can be addressed."

Registration is currently open for all the courses.

Lisa Lapin, a Stanford spokeswoman, said the university retains ownership of the content of the five Stanford courses and that Coursera is serving as a hosting platform. Lapin said she could not elaborate on any more details of the business relationship, citing a policy against disclosing information about "contractual arrangements."

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