Stanford Launches Five Free Online Courses

After their first foray into online-only classes drew over 350,000 participants, Stanford University is launching five new courses this month. The classes, which will begin on March 12, will be run by professors in the school’s computer science department and will cover subjects such as algorithm analysis, game theory and natural language processing. Two additional courses, Game Theory and Probabilistic Graphical Models will begin on March 19.

So far, the classes are on course to match and exceed the enrollment numbers from last year, with 315,000 students across the world already registered for one of the new offerings.

Last fall, 356,000 people from 190 countries expressed interest in one or more of the first three classes offered, and approximately 43,000 successfully completed a course. Participants came from as close as Stanford’s Palo Alto campus and as far away as Ghana, Peru, Russia and New Zealand.

The Stanford faculty who will be teaching the new courses say that this will be a great experiment in “flipped classrooms,” where the majority of interaction between the students and the classwork is done via activities like problem-solving and not traditional lectures. The fact that all the teaching is done online, mainly via videos and quizzes, allows students to move at their own pace. This will also provide good feedback to course designers on student reactions to course materials.

“Advances in video technology, social networks and collaboration software have put us at an inflection point in technology for higher education,” said John Mitchell, a professor of computer science whom Stanford President John Hennessy has selected to be his special assistant for educational technology.

In introducing online-only free courses, Stanford is merely following the footsteps of another American collegiate technology powerhouse, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Announced last December, the program, called MITx, will award a certificate of completion to students who take the entire slate of classes offered. The first of the classes, 6.002x (Circuits and Electronics,) began this Monday and drew 90,000 participants who have been signing up since registration opened in February. The course is taught by MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Anant Agarwal.

Modeled after MIT’s 6.002 — an introductory course for undergraduate students in EECS — 6.002x will introduce engineering in the context of the lumped circuit abstraction, helping students make the transition from physics to the fields of electrical engineering and computer science. Agarwal has taught 6.002 for more than 10 years.

Agarwal, who is one of the movers behind the MITx initiative, hopes to receive feedback from the course not only from the students but also from the open source and business community. He hopes to use the feedback to improve and expand the MITx curriculum in the future.