Earlier this week, Inside Higher Ed's Steve Kolowich  looked at the success Stanford University has had this fall by offering 3 of its engineering courses online. The courses -- Introductions to Artificial Intelligence , Machine Learning , and Databases  -- were available on the Web for free; anyone could register, and hundreds of thousands  of people did.
It's hardly a new idea to put university course materials online. Indeed, MIT Opencourseware  celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. (For an interesting look at how discussions about open education and online education have and haven't changed over the past decade, I recommend reading the 2001 New York Times story  announcing MIT's initiative.)
But the focus of MIT and other universities that are part of the OpenCourseWare Consortium  is just that -- courseware. Course materials are freely available online -- syllabi, notes, exams, handouts -- and the material is licensed CC BY-NC-SA . But there is no access to the instructor. There is no interaction with other students (I should clarify: these things might happen, but it isn't part of the OCW design and isn't part of the university's expectations or responsibility.)
The Stanford online experiment this fall is something different: there is interaction with the instructor. Although only the officially enrolled Stanford students actually got credit for the class, everyone else could still submit their homework, take the tests, and get a grade. And there is interaction with other students too. Various tech news sites , forums, and social networks  pointed to suggestions, help and feedback for the course assignments.
Of course, Stanford isn't the first university to open up its courses to online participants either. MOOCs  (massively open online course) have been around for several years as well.
But the Stanford classes are something different from MOOCs too : the latter is more open, both in terms of the direction the course takes and in the licensing of the materials. (It isn't clear how the 3 Stanford classes are licensed. While the Stanford Engineering Everywhere  program is licensed CC-BY, there isn't a clear designation on these latest online courses.) Also of note: the Artificial Intelligence course was co-offered / co-branded with Know Labs , an education startup co-founded by Professor Sebastian Thrun.
Stanford plans to offer more of its online classes next term, and it will be interesting to watch. Will they remain popular? Will the attrition rates be high or low ("just" 20,000 people completed the AI course, far fewer than the 160,000 who initially registered but still a huge number)? Will online learners continue to build out their own resources and communities to support one another? Will other universities follow with similar offerings? Again, read that New York Times story from 2001 linked above to hear the arguments for and against making educational content freely available online. How will universities handle the licensing of this course content? Will they spin out these programs into education startups?