Two startups aim to make higher education more affordable — or free

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Higher education costs have skyrocketed by over 430 percent since the 1980s. Now two startups aim to make college courses more affordable. Coursera offers free online courses from universities like Stanford and Princeton. And a new tool from Akademos helps professors find less expensive — or free — textbooks for their courses.

Coursera, founded last fall by Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, expands today to include non-Stanford classes and also announces $16 million in Series A funding, in a round led by Kleiner Perkins.

Coursera is adding about 30 online¬†courses from the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Stanford and the University of Michigan. (More courses and universities will be added in coming months.) The courses, which cover topics from computer science and medicine to business, history and literature, aren’t just class videos — the company is not “just shoving the video on the web and hoping for the best,” Koller said. Rather, Coursera aims to recreate an on-campus experience for virtual students. Its coursers include video lectures with interactive quizzes, homework, interactive assignments and collaborative online forums.

“A¬†professor teaching 100,000 students is almost like a new medium, like moving from papyrus to prose,” Ng told me. “For example, how often do students want to see the instructor’s face? Do they want pre-typed text or should the instructor hand-write the text? We’re still figuring it out. Multiple top universities working on a single site provides the opportunity to leverage resources, and partner institutions can learn from each other about how one ought to teach in this new space.”

“We are seeing tremendous retention on the site; when homework is due, traffic spikes,” Koller said. “If you’re changing the lives of millions of people, there will be a way to make it financially sustainable.”

Bringing more “free” to the $12 billion textbook industry

A new tool from white-label digital college bookstore site Akademos tackles another problem in higher education: Expensive textbooks. The textbook business today is run by “very powerful book publishers who can afford to have massive sales forces that go out and work individually with professors to convince them to buy textbooks,” CEO John Squires, who was previously at Time Inc. overseeing the development of magazine JV Next Issue Media, told me. “It’s not unlike the pharmaceuticals industry.” And because textbooks are so expensive, he says, “kids basically choose not to buy. They borrow or steal or they go without.”

Akademos aims to get cheaper textbooks into students’ hands by making the textbook discovery process easier for professors. The company’s Textbook Adoption Tool, launching today, lets professors access and compare textbooks across 3,600 subjects and 2 million books.

Faculty using the platform can search for the course they teach, view textbooks by school adoption and bookmark textbooks for possible later adoption. They can also sort by affordability and peer reviews. And searches pull up not just textbooks from the largest publishers but also free Open Educational Resource texts and other types of books.

For now, the textbook adoption tool is simply a free resource (and a way to draw attention back to Akademos’ white-label business), though it may eventually include e-commerce links. “The textbook industry is a $12 billion industry and faculty don’t really have any way to fairly evaluate and track high-quality content,” Squires said. “We think having some influence over that is going to be a pretty fascinating opportunity for our business.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user beautyfromashes

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