Top campuses jump into the free online course game

Two universities gave millions to Coursera this week.

A dozen of the country’s top universities will make courses available for free on the open online class site Coursera by the beginning of 2013. The announcement was made on the same day that investors — including two campuses — invested millions in the web-based learning site.

By January, Coursera officials expect the site to offer 100 free courses in the arts, computer sciences, health, mathematics, history, literature, and other disciplines. All courses will be free for any individual with a computer and internet connection to enroll.

Coursera was founded in the fall of 2011 by Stanford Computer Science Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, and in April 2012 announced that Princeton, University of Michigan, Stanford and Penn were entering into agreement with Coursera to bring course content online for free.

Coursera has seen more than 680,000 students from 190 countries and more than 1.6 million course enrollments across its 43 courses.

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“We believe that putting courses online for free via Coursera offers tremendous value for students, professors and universities alike,” Ng said. “Students have greater access than ever before to the world’s foremost subject matter experts. Professors can reach more students in one course than they could have hoped to in a lifetime. Universities can teach millions worldwide, and make time on-campus for interactive in-class learning. This is truly the future of higher education.”

In addition to new universities joining Coursera’s platform, Coursera took in a combined $3.7 million in investment from Caltech and Penn, with additional investment from current investors New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, bringing the total in Coursera Series A funding to over $22 million.

The rise of free online college classes has provoked anxiety from traditionalists in higher education, many who have said free classes would eventually replace faculty, even tenured professors.

Coursera officials said the interests of online advocates and more traditional educators have dovetailed as educators see the web-based platform is hardly a threat, but a supplement.

“Coursera is dedicated to creating better educational opportunities inside and outside the classroom, and we could not do it without the blessing and commitment of universities,” said Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller. “We’re fortunate to have the support of these highly-respected academic institutions as we move toward our shared goal of providing a high-quality education to everyone around the world.”

Edward Stolper, Caltech’s provost, said colleges considering the future of education distribution would be eager to team up with sites like Coursera.

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