MIT and others launch a tech education revolution

Four programs deliver traditional -- and nontraditional -- education options for techies

MIT's free online course, 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics, is a hit. The course, which began in March and ends on June 8, prompted 120,000 registrations.

This online course is no different than the circuits and electronics course taught to undergrads on campus, said Anant Agarwal, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who leads 6.002x. The class is part of an open education program called MITx. Discussing the curriculum of MITx, Agarwal said, "It's not watered down; it's the same thing -- it's as hard" as the classes all MIT students take.

Students taking 6.002x may be missing the campus atmosphere, but the online discussion board is electric, with some 6,500 questions posted so far -- and that's before midterms.

With this course, MIT has joined the emerging open-education movement. And it's not just universities that are getting involved; for-profit companies, including a start-up called Udacity, are part of the trend as well.

Among Udacity's co-founders is Sebastian Thrun, former director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who is a research fellow at Stanford and Google fellow. Thrun was one of the professors who taught Stanford's free online course on artificial intelligence last fall. Some 160,000 enrolled in the AI class and 23,000 completed it.

These open-education programs may soon create a dilemma for students who are deciding where to invest their time and dollars. For now, this is such a new area it isn't clear what role these programs will play.

MITx and Udacity will offer certificates to students who successfully complete a single course, and will eventually offer credentials for a collection of courses that might be comparable to a university major.

Growing options

Online education options are expanding overall. More than 6.1 million students took at least one online course in all fields in 2010, an increase of 560,000 students from 2009, according to the Babson Survey Research Group's latest survey.

Just yesterday, start-up Coursera said it had raised $16 million in venture capital for its Web-based platform, which is being used by a number of universities. The company was founded by Stanford Computer Science Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, both of whom led online efforts at that university.

Schools that have adopted Coursera's platform include the University of Michigan, which is offering a course on Model Thinking; Stanford University, with course offerings that include Natural Language Processing, Game Theory and Probabilistic Graphical Models; the University of California at Berkeley, which has a course on Software as a Service; and Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, which will also be providing courses on the platform.

Coursera said it plans to launch 30 more courses by this summer.

"Higher education is ripe for innovation: it is too expensive and limited to a few," John Doerr, of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, said in a statement. His firm is providing some of the funding to Coursera.

The University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS) was among the first institutions to bring computer science training online, beginning in 2006. Today, online enrollments in its undergrad and graduate computer science programs exceed on-campus enrollments.

One UIS student who pursued online studies is Michael Bernico. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science, completing the master's online. Today he works as a researcher investigating new technologies at a large insurance company.

"For our profession, for IT, online learning works really well," said Bernico. "Learning is just part of our job anyway, so we're really good at teaching ourselves," he said.

Here is a closer look at four programs that are changing the nature and cost of tech education.

MITx

6.002x: Circuits and Electronics, is a prototype course, and MIT hasn't nailed down how its broader open-education program will operate. But the school does plan to expand MITx's offerings, according to Agarwal, who serves as a professor of electrical engineering and computer science in addition to running MIT's artificial intelligence laboratory.

Students who successfully complete 6.002x will receive a certificate. Courses will continue to be free and open, but the program "has to be self-sustaining," Agarwal said. One way to accomplish that may be to charge for a course certificate or for a credential.

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