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Originally published September 21, 2012 at 12:00 PM | Page modified September 24, 2012 at 4:40 PM

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Why some of the best universities are giving away their courses

Each has answers. But basically it comes down to these: To serve the greater good. To win a public-relations race. And, most especially, to enhance reputations.

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SEATTLE TECH entrepreneur Greg Linden describes himself as "mostly retired" these days, but at age 39 he still has an insatiable appetite for knowledge. So he decided to go to college — without leaving home.

Through Stanford University, he took a class on robotic-car programming from professor Sebastian Thrun, who led the team that designed Google's self-driving car.

He also scarfed down a class on computer-program design from Google Research director Peter Norvig, who used to oversee computational sciences at NASA. And he gobbled up a class on machine learning from another Stanford professor who directs the university's Artificial Intelligence Lab.

All the classes were online, open to anyone. Linden didn't have to fill out an application or send in his transcripts.

Even more amazing? They were all free.

"There is no other way I could ever take a class from these powerhouses in the field," says Linden, who has been a principal engineer at Microsoft and Amazon.com, and holds master's degrees from the University of Washington and Stanford.

He was so impressed with the design of the classes and the quality of the teaching that he enrolled his son, Jacob, who is 10, in an introductory physics class. It, too, was free.

Across town in South Lake Union, Vitalina Komashko, a postdoctoral fellow in systems biology working for the nonprofit Sage Bionetworks, realized that the course in machine learning would be helpful in her job, so she plunged in.

There were lectures and quizzes, homework and deadlines. A lively class support forum, too.

And it was all free.

"To give such high-quality content, for nothing," she says, "is amazing."

Could this be the revolution that busts down the door of the Ivy Tower, changing it forever?

WHAT'S CALLED "distance learning," in some form or fashion, has been with us for decades — from the correspondence courses developed in the mid-1800s to the video conferencing that Stanford offered in the 1970s. The for-profit University of Phoenix, one of the largest higher-education institutions in the country, launched an online program as far back as 1989. Washington's four-year institutions, and many of its community colleges, have been offering online courses and even entire degree programs for more than a decade.

Then, in 2002, a game-changer: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began putting all its course material online, where anybody could get it without shelling out a dime.

Around the same time, at a few universities in Canada and at Brigham Young in Utah, professors began experimenting with so-called "open education" by holding classes online and on-site simultaneously, inviting the world to participate. They called them Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, and they, too, were free.

An MIT graduate named Sal Khan also began experimenting with little YouTube videos that broke math concepts down into simple lessons, using a blackboard and voice-overs — a technique aimed at elementary-age students that has been embraced by online college instructors, too.

In fall of 2011, another game-changer: Stanford offered Thrun's class on artificial intelligence online at no cost. More than 160,000 people signed up from around the world. That's eight times the number of students who go to school at Stanford. About 20,000 people finished the course.

By now you're surely wondering: Why would any university — especially now, when so many are straining to pay the bills — give away the store?

Each has answers. But basically it comes down to these: To serve the greater good. To win a public-relations race. And, most especially, to enhance reputations.

"One of the great drivers in higher education is reputation — who's the most innovative, which encourages people to push the envelope in what is a slow-moving field," says Josh Jarrett, deputy director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation is watching all of this closely. In May, Harvard University and MIT announced a $60 million collaboration to offer free online courses; it's called edX, and the Gates Foundation has awarded several million-dollar grants to discover how these classes might best help boost learning, especially by marrying those courses to community-college classes.

With top-tier universities offering free courses, "it became easy for others to follow," Jarrett says, "and hard for others not to follow."

And follow they do. In July, the UW became one of 12 top-tier universities that joined one of the online startups, Coursera, launched by two computer-science professors at Stanford. The UW's free classes are expected to begin this fall. Washington State University is also jumping into free online learning this fall, with a selection of interactive seminars.

Still: Digitizing your offerings, giving away your content. We've seen this show before. It's upended the music and publishing industries — and not always for the better.

FURIOUS DEBATES have broken out online about the value of Coursera, its Stanford-based rival Udacity (run by Google car inventor Thrun) and MOOCs of all kinds.

Critics argue that participation in a class of 10,000 students is not possible in any meaningful way. "You might as well give a degree in history to anyone who spends enough hours watching The History Channel," wrote one reader in an online forum for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Another fretted that free online education would undermine higher education as we know it — mass-producing degrees that mean nothing.

Then again, if you're sitting in the back row of a Biology 101 lecture with 600 other students, you're practically participating in distance learning right now.

It's important to understand, too, that these new courses aren't just rehashes of old lectures. They've been reworked to take advantage of new understandings about how we learn, and they use the Web's ability to interact in a way that hasn't been done before.

Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, says the default form of college classes — a professor standing in front of her students, lecturing for an hour — developed 300 years ago, when books were rare and the professor essentially read the contents.

This is 2012. We're wired. We can do better, Koller says.

Take Physics 100, an introductory class on Udacity. Physics 100 is taught by Andy Brown, an MIT grad and teacher, with help from a teaching assistant. It's one of the easier courses on Udacity, more like a high-school class or an introductory college course for nonmajors.

The course is broken into videos, each a few minutes long. Brown's hand plays a starring role: He draws pictures on a white background (if you've sampled video lessons from the Khan Academy, this will seem familiar). He chats rather than lectures. Even physics seems within reach.

The first lesson covers how the ancient Greeks divined that the Earth is round, then used trigonometry to measure its circumference. Brown shows you how Plato and Archimedes erred when they guessed the planet's circumference, and how Eratosthenes got it right.

Short quizzes are embedded in the lectures. At the end of the first unit, Brown goes to Siena, Italy, and performs the same experiment Eratosthenes did.

There's a lively discussion forum where students pose questions to the TA and each other, and identify where they're from: the U.S., yes, but also Poland, Finland, New Zealand, Germany, Ecuador.

So it's a slick interface, and it keeps you engaged. But why is this any more likely to be successful than videoconference lectures, or any other form of distance learning?

As Ed Lazowska notes: "We've had 10 to 15 years of computers in K-12, and there has been no demonstrable improvement in learning."

Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in computer science at the UW, is not opposed to using the power of the Internet to teach massive numbers of people. Far from it. He believes we're at the brink of changes that will affect higher education hugely.

What's different? First, Lazowska says, the technology has vastly improved, allowing us to do things (like live chats over the Web) that we couldn't do before. Second, a slew of discoveries in brain science have helped us understand how best to use the new technology and make learning stick.

For example: Breaking the video lectures into small chunks helps students retain information better. Embedded quizzes keep them focused. Drawings appeal to the visual learner.

Teaching huge classes on the Internet also allows you to rapidly learn how people learn, says Andrew Ng, the co-founder, along with Koller, of Coursera. Just as Amazon learns your shopping habits by analyzing what you do online, Coursera records every mouse click and keystroke, then figures out what actions preceded the right answer — and the wrong one.

The benefits could be enormous. With potentially millions of students taking online classes, we could accelerate our understanding of how people learn, and how best to teach them.

VAULT AHEAD 10 years and you have a college experience that might look like this:

As an undergraduate, you take physics courses from MIT, American history from Princeton, intro to finance from the University of Michigan — all while studying in Seattle and finishing with a diploma from the UW.

Large lecture classes — now the mainstay of the first two years of an undergraduate education at many big public universities — have morphed over to the Web as mixed video lectures. If that lecture on mitochondrial DNA stumped you, you go to an online forum for help from teaching assistants or peers.

Your homework is watching the lecture, with embedded quizzes; your class is an extended lab, problem-solving, practice sessions or intensive mentoring with a grad student or professor. (Some studies have shown that this technique, combining online classes with on-site instruction, allows students to retain information better than live teaching on its own.)

The line between pre-college, college and post-college has blurred, perhaps even disappeared. A growing number of high-school students dip into college classes.

Meanwhile, your parents come back to school — virtually, that is — to earn certificates or skills to plump up their résumés, or simply to learn something that will help them at work. Even your grandparents are going back to college, enriching their retirement years with art-history courses, mastering calculus, learning another language.

The upward trajectory of tuition loses momentum. New models present a cheaper college education.

Sounds great, right? But ...

State universities are hurting financially already after years of cost-cutting; they can't possibly be expected to start giving away courses. Today, you can take a lot of courses for nothing, but you won't get a Stanford degree, or even credit, no matter how well you do. And if cheating is a worry in a live classroom, just imagine how easy it would be to fake participation in an online class.

And how will lesser colleges survive? "If you teach artificial intelligence at the University of Nebraska, what do you do when Sebastian Thrun puts out a free course in artificial intelligence?" asks Jarrett of the Gates Foundation. "It's an existential threat — not to you, but to the University of Nebraska."

Talk about disruptive.

THOSE WHO believe in MOOCs say the fixes may only be a matter of time.

When the UW announced this summer that it was joining Coursera, it also laid out a plan to offer enhanced, credit-awarding versions of the free course — but for a fee that's roughly equivalent to the price of its existing online courses.

Purists will argue that this subverts the whole idea of MOOCs. But it's hard to argue against a state university trying to recover costs.

Other models offer ways to award credit and make money.

Cable Green, director of global learning for the nonprofit Creative Commons, has a goal of seeing that everyone in the world can attain all the education their hearts desire and brains can take. The former director of eLearning for the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, he, too, thinks we're on the cusp of something big. And he doesn't think the no-credit problem is going to stand in the way for long.

SAT-prep companies could proctor tests, for example, to make sure nobody cheats; the University of Friedberg, in Germany, has already allowed students to take a proctored version of Thrun's class for credit.

And although the courses might not earn you a degree, you could earn a "badge," under one proposal, every time you completed a course. Meanwhile, the course provider that awarded the badge might "sell" information about its high-scoring students to company headhunters, so some of the cost of getting a degree would essentially be borne by employers.

In the meantime, if you're unemployed or underemployed, take note that people like Seattle entrepreneur Linden would be impressed with a résumé that included a few Udacity or Coursera courses. But ... "There is no way a certificate from Udacity is anything like a degree from a top-tier computer-science school," Linden says, "nor is it supposed to be." And even if these alternate-learning programs don't succeed, he says, "I expect the example they set to change education permanently, toward flipped classrooms and personalized education, away from the old and dated lecture."

The pioneers of this movement will likely be people like Linden, or Vitalina Komashko. But who's to say they wouldn't have done the same thing a hundred years ago?

People with hungry minds will always find a way to feed them.

"We've had MOOCs and open learning resources for centuries," says Dave Cillay, executive director of WSU Online. "They're called libraries."

Katherine Long is The Seattle Times higher-education reporter. Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.

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