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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.

MIT hasn't figured out exactly how much to charge for a certificate or credential, but Agarwal said, "We want to make it very affordable, very inexpensive." He suggested pricing in the "very low triple digits," but quickly added that that's just a guess.

Students who complete a single class will receive a certificate, which will include a grade. Agarwal said MITx will award credentials to students who successfully complete a series of courses in a specific discipline, such as energy or parallel programming.

The idea behind credentials "turns the concept of a degree on its head and makes it much more flexible," said Agarwal, adding that "students can take some courses in biology, chemistry, maybe some artificial intelligence, and string them together."

The type of people Agarwal envisions taking MITx classes include high school students using the courses as a form of advanced placement to help with college admission, adults who have jobs and want more training, and those who are looking for work.

Agarwal said he believes that employers will see value in MITx course work, and he predicted that a grade of an A or a B on a certificate could help a student land an interview.

He's passionate about MITx's broader mission.

There are "far more people that want a good education than there are quality universities that can offer education," he said. MIT accepts less than 10% of the people who apply for admission, he said, and the acceptance rate of The Indian Institutes of Technology is even lower. "Time and time again, we see that the demand simply overwhelms the supply."

Oregon State University

In June, Oregon State University will offer an entire computer science degree online. It will be possible to complete the program in as little as 12 months, but students can extend that to several years. The program will cost about $15,000 and is intended for people who already hold bachelor's degrees in other areas, such as anthropology, biology or English.

Teaching assistants have been hired to offer 24-hour support for students. "If they send an email at 2 a.m., they will get an immediate response," said Terri Fiez, who heads OSU's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The program is open to anyone, anywhere in the world, said Fiez, but Oregon State is following a traditional approach: It caps class sizes and has an admissions process. Oregon State awards about 90 computer science degrees annually, and that figure is much lower than the number of help wanted ads that appear in the department's newsletter over the course a year, said Fiez. The university hopes the online program will help it double the number of computer science graduates it produces.

Skip Newberry, the president of the Software Association of Oregon, supports Oregon State's effort. He says employers are looking for people who exhibit curiosity, are fast learners and can demonstrate what it means to do logic. The online program will give people a basic level of proficiency in those areas, he said.

"As a one-year complement to actual on-the-job experience, I think this program can be pretty powerful," said Newberry.

Udacity

Udacity, which has 140,000 people enrolled in its latest classes, plans to offer a computer science curriculum online sometime this year. The computer science program will feature course work similar to what's needed to earn a computer science degree at a university, without the humanities classes and other electives. Students who complete segments of this curriculum will receive a credential.

Udacity classes are free but, as MIT might do with its MITx program, the company might consider charging money for certificates, said David Stavens, Udacity's CEO and co-founder.

Udacity also plans to help students find jobs, and it's considering placement or fees charged to employers. When asked what the incentive or motivation would be for employers to consider Udacity students, Stavens said via email: "Students will have completed a high-quality curriculum and will have been assessed by some of the leading faculty in the world."

"At top universities, the rigor of the classes is guaranteed almost entirely by the faculty teaching them," said Stavens. "Since Udacity has distinguished faculty who also teach at top universities or have impressive records in industry, we feel the classes are comparable."

Udacity's offerings include classes with titles such as these: Programming a Robotic Car, Web Application Engineering, and Applied Cryptography.

"The rigor of classes at most universities is guaranteed by the faculty, not by some process within the university," said Stavens. "As long as Udacity continues to attract outstanding teachers, we can be comparable to great universities."

The University of Illinois at Springfield

UIS is considered a pioneer in online education. The online version of the school's computer science program has been so successful that online enrollment now exceeds on-campus enrollment.

Last year, 121 students were enrolled in the on-campus computer science bachelor's degree program, and 171 students were enrolled online. In the master's program, there were 129 students on campus, and 146 enrolled in the online version. About 70% of the online students are from out of state, including some from other countries, said Ted Mims, a professor and chair of the UIS computer science department.

Most online programs established by universities will attract students who live relatively close to a school's actual campus, said Elaine Allen, a professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College and co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, which produces an annual report on online learning in the U.S. However, she said, UIS is an exception to that rule, because it started offering online classes much earlier than other institutions. "They were really thinking ahead," she said.

Although university programs can't compete strictly on cost with open education providers, they can reduce the cost of an education.

An online master's degree at UIS costs less than $13,000 based on 32 hours of course work. There is no out-of-state tuition penalty for online students, and the cost of an online program is even a little bit below the in-state on-campus price because fees are lower.

Bernico, the UIS alum, earned his master's degree online over a period of three years while juggling a job and family responsibilities. He said he didn't need a student loan.

"Programs as well thought out and put together as UIS are pretty darn rare still," said Bernico.

And Mims pointed out that, whether a program is completed online or in the classroom, there's no difference in what the diploma says.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected].

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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