Top universities join forces online

Five big schools, including Princeton and University of Pennsylvania, will begin offering free classes on the web. It's all part of a new venture backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

Kai Ryssdal: Should you happen to believe you're not Stanford material, or that you can't get into Penn or Princeton or U.C. Berkeley -- good news today. A startup company called Coursera announced today it's gonna team up with those big-name schools and others to offer courses online. For free.

You won't actually get college credit, and the course subjects are limited. But there's a pretty clear upside for the students. Question is, what's in it for the schools? From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR, Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: The University of Michigan can charge out-of-state students roughly $40,000 a year. So why would it give away courses for free?

Martha Pollack: You know, I just don’t think it’s an apples to apples comparison. It’s a totally different experience.

Martha Pollack is vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs at Michigan. She says the university plans to start with seven courses on the Coursera website, on topics like finance, electronic voting and fantasy and science fiction. She says no doubt, students working face-to-face with professors get a richer education.

Pollack: But by using Coursera, we are able to reach out to people who couldn’t otherwise come to campus and give them a glimpse of what our education is like.

Some of those people might even turn into paying students. Two professors at Stanford started Coursera after their own free, online courses attracted more than 100,000 students -- more than half from other countries. Now, they’ve attracted $16 million in venture capital. And the business plan is pure Silicon Valley startup. Co-founder Daphne Koller says there isn’t one.

Daphne Koller: The current ethos in Silicon Valley is that, if you construct a website that keeps users coming back again and again and engaging with the site, then there will be found a way to bring in revenue that would make it self-sustaining.

One idea is to charge to connect employers with top students. But as one investor put it on his blog, if Coursera gains traction with students and universities, “the rest will take care of itself.”

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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