College needs both interested students and dedicated professors. But sometimes they never get to meet in person. Recently (I mean this year) several well known and top universities started to offer free online courses. Yes, totally free and completely online.

Top universities have many prestigious professors. So imagine you live somewhere in India, or Russia, or Pakistan, or Tunisia, New Zealand, Mongolia … wherever. If you have access to the Internet then you have access to courses taught by professors at M.I.T, Stanford, Harvard, Virginia Tech, etc. All you need to do to enroll in such a course was to provide your name and your e-mail address.

Harvard and M.I.T. formed a partnership, called edX, whose president is professor Anant Agarwal. Yesterday, The New York Times published an interview with Mr. Agarwal. He was the first to teach the online course offered through edX, “Circuits and Electronics”, in March-June this year. There were 150,000 students enrolled in this course. A certificate of completion was given to each student who successfully completed the course.

How does one professor handle so many students? Mr. Agarwal says that there were no assignments to grade because they were all formulated to be automatically graded. But there were chat forums where students asked questions. The course taught by Mr. Agarwal had four teaching assistants who were supposed to help with answering the students’ questions. However, as soon as a question was asked on a forum, another student came up with an answer. Often the answer was not completely correct, but other students would come up to answer the question, and often, working together, they got the answer write. The professor instructed the T.A.s to wait sometime before they answer a question, because often times, all they had to do was to say when the answer was correct.

Only 7157 students passed the course. This was because the course was M.I.T.-hard and required a very solid background in calculus and differential equations. There were weekly assignments and many students did not have the time to complete them.

The edX courses operate under an honor code. In the future they may use the cameras inside a laptop or iPad to watch the person while taking the exam, and everything else that’s happening in the room.

Professor Agarwal talked also about the future of edX: “When there are more courses, I could imagine people taking several of them, and putting them together, getting the certificate, and using it something like a diploma. I think the courses will get better and better, but we don’t know how they’ll be used.” He added: “Our goal is to change the world through education.”

edX intends to offer also courses in computer science, biology, math, physics, public health, history and more.

Filed under: College needs

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