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Online education startup Coursera isn’t just revolutionizing learning in the U.S., it’s refashioning higher education for people around the world. Since its earliest courses, Coursera’s student population has been highly international (it’s currently 35 percent domestic, 65 percent international). And, in addition to announcing $6 million in new funding, the startup Tuesday said that it’s adding its first international university partners.
Coursera’s new investment — which includes $3.7 million from the California Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as $2.3 million from current funders New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — brings its total funding to $22 million. The company said it was adding twelve top universities, including the University of Edinburgh, University of Toronto and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), to the list of four partners it announced in April (Princeton, Michigan, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania).
Coursera: Online education is a new medium, we’re all inventing the basic concepts
One of the classes offered by EPFL, an introduction to programming course, will be taught in French, making it the platform’s first non-English language course (although other courses already include captions with translations). Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng said the top non-U.S. countries represented by students on the platform have been Russia, India, the UK and Brazil. But he said he was especially pleased that the French language class would make Coursera more accessible to people in the poorer parts of Africa, in which the primary language is French.
The new U.S. partners include the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, UC San Francisco, University of Washington, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Virginia.
“One of the reasons our partners are excited about working with us is that online education is a new medium and we’re all inventing the basic concepts and the basic ways to do these things,” said Ng. ”One of the things we’re doing is trying to do and collect the best practices and share them with our partners.”
For example, Coursera developed a new peer-grading system and technology for a computer-human interfaces class, but is now applying it to a Princeton sociology class, as well as a Penn poetry class.
Data collection and analysis remain key factors
Coursera, which was founded in the fall of 2011 by Ng and fellow Stanford professor Daphne Koller, is just one of several startups leading the way in online education. Udacity, which also has Stanford pedigree, 2tor, UniversityNow and the Minerva Project are others trying to make higher education more accessible through the Web. MIT and Harvard recently announced a joint initiative to create a free online course platform.
But Ng said Coursera is distinguished by its partnerships with leading universities and the range and breadth of its classes. It not only gives students free access to professors at elite universities, it offers courses on a range of subjects, from neuroscience and engineering to health policy and mythology. At the moment, students can cherry pick individual classes from a menu of courses but, down the line, Ng said, Coursera plans to provide more guidance so students can follow a course of study leading to mastery of a discipline or skill.
The courses themselves will always be free, because, Ng said, “many of the most needy people… not only do they not have $5, they don’t even have a credit card. And to throw up a barrier, I think, would be a tragedy.” But he added that possible revenue could be earned by matching students (who tend to be motivated by career advancement) with potential employers or charging students for certificates from partner universities.
Since launching, Coursera has offered 43 classes to 680,000 students from 190 countries. As the platform grows, Ng said the collection and analysis of data will continue to be a key focus.
“We log every mouse click, every time a student fast forwards a video, every time a student plays something twice,” he said. “One of the reasons Silicon Valley companies, like Google (s GOOG), Facebook (s FB) and LinkedIn (s LNKD) are so good at what they do is because they can collect so much data on their users. This allows them to improve their services, and we are doing the same thing for education.”
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Shutterstock user [Monkey Business Images].