By: Emma Collins
As the average price of college enrollment continues to rise, many technology entrepreneurs have set their sights on revitalizing and democratizing education.
“Less than one percent of US college students attend Ivy League schools, says Sebastian Thrum, Stanford University professor and founder of technology start-up Udacity. “These students don’t necessarily reflect the world’s brightest and most capable thought leaders, but rather the people who’ve been afforded the most opportunities to succeed.” Ventures like Udacity and similar online education sites edX and Coursera have helped bring online education into the mainstream by offering courses and lectures that are comparable, if not identical, to those found at the most prestigious Ivy League universities.
Coursera is the brainchild of Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, who received $22 million in financing — including $3.7 million from the California Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania — to start the company. The company’s high profile partners, including Princeton, Stanford and Penn State, have raised its profile in the world of higher education, where school status can help substantially in getting noticed.
Udacity’s Thrum is also a Stanford University research professor, as well as a programmer and Google fellow. Thrum’s background helped him to raise $21.5 million in venture capital to fund Udacity. Of course, regardless of the accolades of their founders, neither of these companies would be able to raise these millions of dollars if their ideas didn’t hold promise, and the services these education startups offer are already attracting thousands. These startups have the potential to reach millions of students around the world, a goal that was never feasible until recently.
Coursera has already enrolled over 1.35 million students from over 196 countries in its free online courses since it began in the spring of 2012, while doubling its number of university partners. Available courses range from engineering courses to classes on biology and even music. Courses from Udacity, meanwhile, have been translated from English into 44 languages. Classes and lectures taken through Udacity are free of charge, however, one can chose to certify their skills online or in one of Udacity’s 4,500 testing centers for a fee. Thrun is even trying to best his brick-and-mortar university peers by shifting from lecture based teaching to more interactive, student focused technology education.
Though online entrepreneurs are undoubtedly catalyzing an evolution in education, traditional universities should not be fearful of their online peers. Many, like Coursera, both supplement and rely on the education offered by traditional universities, rather than seeking to end it. Furthermore, a revenue stream is not yet in place. John C. Mitchell, vice provost for online learning at Stanford, speculates that licensing courses, in which other colleges pay a fee to use school material, may soon allow brick-and-mortar and online schools to operate in tandem. For now, online entrepreneurs and their respective education startups remain at the cutting edge of academia, with millions around the globe already benefitting from their innovation and ambition.
Emma Collins, a web writer who recently produced a guide to the best MBA programs 2012, discusses some of the hottest innovations in education. The education sector is one of the fastest growing in both the US and Canada.
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