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Coursera is one of many new educational technology companies offering courses online. Two Stanford Computer Science professors founded Coursera and received $16 million in venture capital. Their idea was to work with top universities and professors from all over the world to develop courses. At first these will be free, but it is expected to generate revenue in time. Revenue will be shared with the professors and universities. Revenue could be generated in many different ways, including certification fees, connecting students to recruiters and employers, tutoring, tuition, possibly the sale of information to employers. They expect to find other revenue streams they have yet to think of.

These courses combine video lectures, quizzes, graphics, peer review, forums, chat sessions, and even local meetup groups. A team from Coursera works with the professors and universities to develop the short video lectures and quizzes. The classes are at a full university level and are fairly demanding.

Currently Coursera has over 300 courses in 5 languages and more than 3 million students from 210 countries have taken a class. The company is about 1 year old. They imagine that the best professors in the world, through effective use of technology will be able to teach classes to tens of thousands of students, not just a privileged few. The costs would be very low per student as they would be distributed over many thousands, not just a few.

From their Vision statement online:
"Classes offered on Coursera are designed to help you master the material. When you take one of our classes, you will watch lectures taught by world-class professors, learn at your own pace, test your knowledge, and reinforce concepts through interactive exercises. When you join one of our classes, you'll also join a global community of thousands of students learning alongside you. We know that your life is busy, and that you have many commitments on your time. Thus, our courses are designed based on sound pedagogical foundations, to help you master new concepts quickly and effectively. Key ideas include mastery learning, to make sure that you have multiple attempts to demonstrate your new knowledge; using interactivity, to ensure student engagement and to assist long-term retention; and providing frequent feedback, so that you can monitor your own progress, and know when you've really mastered the material. "

What's it like?

I'm taking a class and I'll admit I am very impressed. It expects us to spend 7-10 hours per week on course work. Each week there are a half dozen or so lectures lasting from 5 minutes to 30 minutes. The lectures stop occasionally and ask multiple choice questions about the material, so you really have to think about the lecture while it is happening. The lectures are not merely a professor standing up and talking, but also have graphics, pictures and diagrams to help explain the topic.

There is also a few of hours of reading material each week and a weekly quiz over both the lectures and the reading materials. The quizzes can be re-taken until the material is mastered.

In addition there are online forums where you can ask questions and discuss each lecture and reading assignment. I think there are about 1,500 students from all over the world taking this class with me.


Our educational system is a mess. We are spending more and more money and getting very poor results, yet a good education is becoming increasingly important, not only for individuals, but for the country. This approach imagines fewer teachers, and better use of technology to distribute costs more broadly and produce a more tailored learning experience. The results, if successful as more than a niche phenomena, will be many fewer teachers who make much more money, and better evaluation of learning. This really is exciting technology.

Date: April 2013

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