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About this blog: I write about technology companies, trends and events in and around Mountain View. Where else can you find startups nurtured by Y-Combinator and 500 Startups working alongside multi-billion corporations like Google, Symantec and I...  (More)

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Coursera Educates Five Million Students and Revenues Start Growing

Uploaded: Oct 22, 2013
Mountain View's Coursera offers free online courses from the world's leading universities. Today, at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in San Francisco's Moscone Center, Stanford professor Andrew Ng described why he co-founded Coursera, which launched in 2012. The conference, which is also held in Beijing, features mobile apps, wearable devices and connected cars.

Ng is director of Stanford's artificial intelligence laboratory. At Stanford he can teach 400 students. With Coursera he taught 100,000 students in his machine learning class. The other co-founder is Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor of computer science. Five million students have registered Coursera accounts to take MOOCs (massive open online courses).

The average age of a Coursera student is 30. Students logon to Coursera from all over the world. They learn by watching videos and presentations, as well as reading documents and websites. Speeding up videos to twice their normal speed helps students learn fast. Students help answer each other's questions in online forums. Ng said on average students get an answer in 22 minutes. While Stanford professors are sleeping, students on the other side of the world can be helping each other. Coursera enables students to submit answers multiple times so they can aim to increase their grade.

How do you mark 100,000 tests? Quizzes can be graded automatically. A computer can also tell if you've used a particular command in a computer program. Peer review has also proven effective. So a class might ask each student to grade the work of 5 other students. In a furniture building class, students could use their cellphones to photograph their creations and submit them for credit.

How does Coursera make money? Students who pass get a free certificate. If they want a Verified Certificate then they pay a fee – usually around $50. This fee is the main revenue source. Ng says it took nine months to get $1M in revenues, but now sales are currently $100Ka week. Ng believes Coursera's financial model is sustainable if 1% of enrolled students pay for certificates. I am skeptical that the courses can be offered to everyone for free indefinitely, as the company has received $65M in three rounds of funding in less than two years.

Whereas $50 for a single course certificate is a bargain compared with Stanford fees, for a student from a poor country it could be a month's wages. Coursera has a scholarship fund that will pay the validated certificate fee for impoverished, deserving students. To guard against fraudulent students, Coursera software can check the typing speed consistency. Also, a webcam can photograph a student together with ID.

I took two Coursera courses this summer – Stanford's Startup Engineering course, where I had to learn JavaScript, and the University of Melbourne's Discrete Optimization course, where I had to learn Python. The first I passed with distinction, the second I'll retake next March as it really challenged my programming skills. Both provided incredible learning experiences, not least the amusing style of Melbourne's Professor Pascal Van Hentenryck, shown in the introductory course video.

What does this mean for traditional university education? Ng explained how the Flipped Classroom means that students still go to college, but they learn from the world's best teachers online. They use classroom time for discussion with each other and their professor. Universities will be able to select graduate students from parts of the world that have not awarded degrees to their people in the past.

Udacity, another Mountain View company that offers MOOCs, will offer an Online Master of Science degree in computer science with Georgia Tech, supported by AT&T. Applicants must sign up by October 27th. About 100 students will start in January 2014. Ng sees Coursera offering suites of courses in the future that employers may accept as an alternative to traditional university degrees.

Distance learning isn't new for universities. In the UK, the University of London has offered external degrees since 1858 and the Open University, where students could watch lecturers on television, started enrolling students in 1971. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put its course materials online for over ten years. Its OpenCourseWare program now offers materials from 2150 courses. In August it had over 1.4M unique visitors, 35% more than a year earlier.

Ng said that on his worldwide travels he still gets comments that a university education should only be for the elite. It's hard to believe such attitudes when both Coursera and Udacity are committed to giving everyone a chance to learn at the college level.

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