Now, with video streaming tools, videoconferencing programs, and the ability to share and edit documents online, anyone with an Internet connection can gain access to college- and graduate-level education.
In recent years, universities have used the Web to post lectures online for users to watch at no cost. In 2006, Salman Khan created Khan Academy, a nonprofit education organization that posts YouTube "micro-lectures" on topics ranging from mathematics to art history.
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But still the public clamored for more organized online programs, notes Eren Bali, CEO and cofounder of Udemy, an online education provider.
"We realized that people are looking for structured content even though there are heaps of content available [online]," he says. "You need some guidance and a community."
For students interested in free online education programs, here are three that offer structured courses.
1. Coursera: Professors at Stanford University offered a series of free computer science courses online in fall 2011. Hundreds of thousands of students enrolled, far exceeding traditional enrollments, notes Andrew Ng, a cofounder of Coursera and a professor at Stanford who taught a machine learning course during the experiment.
"I normally teach a 400-student class," says Ng, who instructed more than 100,000 students through the online course. "To reach a comparable size audience, I'd have to teach my normal class for 250 years."
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Motivated by the experiment's success, Ng and Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor who also taught a free online course, founded Coursera, an online platform that offers structured courses from prestigious universities at no cost to students. The service—which features professors from Princeton University, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford—has topped a million enrollments since launching in March.
"Today's top universities offer an amazing education to a miniscule fraction of the population," Ng says. "We'd like to see a future where top schools are teaching not just thousands of students, but millions."
Within a course, video lectures are broken into segments with online quizzes to ensure students understand the material. Assignments are computer graded currently but, Koller notes, peer grading will soon be implemented for courses that may have more open-ended questions and answers.
Students can also engage in Q&A forums, where other users vote a question up or down based on its value and quality.
"I have checked into the discussion forums to see if people had the same questions as me and found that they almost always did," says Yoav Bergner, a Coursera user who is completing postdoctoral research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There were really inspiring, high-level discussions happening from students all over the world."