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Why Stanford's Free Online Education Experiment Is Booming

Professors want virtual students to have the same experience as the ones in the physical classroom.


This fall, Stanford decided to experiment by offering its three most popular computer science classes to the public—for free. Within weeks, 200,000 people from around the globe signed up, with Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, taught by renowned Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun (pictured above), attracting a whopping 160,000 students.

Norvig’s tracking found that more than 3 million users have come to the page since the university announced the artificial intelligence class. And more than 35,000 of the people who signed up have stuck with Intro to A.I., turning in assignments and taking midterm exams right along with the 175 students paying to take the class in person.


Because of the interest, Stanford plans to offer seven more computer science classes beginning in January, and will expand its offerings to two entrepreneurship courses. Next semester, students will be able to take Technology Entrepreneurship—a class on how to launch a successful startup, and The Lean Launchpad, which will teach how to turn "a great idea into a great company."

The unique aspect of Stanford’s effort compared to MIT's decade-old Open CourseWare and other first-generation online learning projects is that Stanford’s professors aren’t just posting a syllabus and hoping people follow along. Norvig and Thrun have worked to give their virtual lectures the same feel as the in-person Stanford experience. They even take questions from their virtual students and respond to them in live office hours via Google Hangouts.

Of course, the online students don’t get credit for the classes—Stanford verifies a "badge of completion" instead. But that hasn't cut down on demand, and a growing number of professors are invested in making knowledge available to the masses, regardless of their ability to pay. If the school keeps expanding its offerings, an entire Stanford education could soon be available for free online.

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