Two prestigious universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University, are offering online courses open to the public. You just need an e-mail address to enroll.

If your college needs more online students they could follow these examples.

MIT offers a class in Circuits and Electronics, while Stanford offers five online classes: Design and Analysis of Algorithms, Natural Language Processing, Cryptography, Game Theory and Probabilistic Graphical Models. These are courses usually offered to Computer Engineering and Computer Science students. All of them are free. If you successfully complete a course you receive a certificate (for free) but no university credit is given.

Last fall at Stanford there were more than 350,000 participants from 190 countries all around the world. Approximately 43,000 participants successfully completed a course. MIT is doing this for the first time.

The online classes are part of a university initiative to creatively use new technology to improve education both on campus and off.

Online students can view interactive videos of lectures at their convenience. You can listen as many time as you want, you can pause the video to think at what the professor just said, and so you have the possibility to follow the lectures at your own pace. It is better for learning, it is better for understanding the lectures. Then you have online problem sets to solve. After you submit your answers they are instantly graded and you receive immediate feedback and explanations. There may be even two allowed attempts to answer the questions, with the best grade remembered.

There is also an online discussion board where you can discuss the lectures with your fellow students, there are optional lectures and optional problem sets which are not graded but you can discuss them online on the discussion board.

The interactive video lectures contain questions and quizzes which keep the students thinking about the material and help them learn more effectively. There is also an opportunity for the professors to get instant feedback on how the students respond to lectures and course material.

This kind of online courses are made possible by advances in video technology, social networks and collaboration software. It is like a lab for experimentation of the use of advances in technology for higher education.

More information about class material, instructors and enrollment is available on the Coursera website, where you can see that University of California, Berkeley, also provides two online courses, and that other online courses are in preparation as well (including an Anatomy course.)

Information about the MIT course (which is offered for the first time this year) can be found on the MITx website.

Most of the courses already started but you can use the information for the next semester, which is probably the fall semester 2012. For some courses the enrollment is still open.

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