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How online learning is reinventing college

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While online learning is hardly new, people began seeing it differently after MOOCs went viral in the fall of 2011. Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., offered his artificial intelligence course free of charge online – and 150,000 people signed up. Soon after, one of his colleagues, Andrew Ng, did the same with his Stanford machine learning course, and 105,000 enrolled. More courses followed. Suddenly, MOOCs were finding audiences worldwide.

Unlike more traditional open courseware – hour-long lectures videotaped from the back of the room and posted on the Internet – MOOCs have caught on in part because they are made for online learning. You can sign up for Lander's course, for example, in just a matter of minutes (the hardest part is devising a clever username). The whole course pops up on the landing page and is easy to explore with the click of a mouse: schedule, syllabus, brief lecture videos, assignments, video "deep dives" explaining topics only touched on in class, discussion forums, and a progress page to track how you're doing.

And you can attend lectures when you want: Watch a lesson now or download it and watch it later. If you missed something, listen to a lecture again. It's all as friendly as a basset hound.

"Welcome back for Week 2," Lander says in a genial tone. Dressed in a blue button-down shirt, he praises everyone for hard work and says the course will only get better. You feel as if he's talking to you, even though he's addressing thousands out in the electronic ether.

"We're done with atoms and bonds, and we're going to move to looking at cool proteins!" he says.

Lander may not be as animated as Bill Nye the Science Guy, but he's close. There is, in other words, nothing scary about this MIT course. In fact, Lander has a special video message urging high school teachers to have their students take it.

The welcoming vibe is classic MOOC, even though online courses exhibit clear differences in style. Some of this stems from the companies that produce them. While more of these educational firms are surfacing every day, three – Coursera, edX, and Udacity – have earned the most attention.

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