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How online learning is reinventing college

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Coursera, a for-profit started by Dr. Ng and Stanford colleague Daphne Koller, reached 1 million users faster than Facebook and is now expanding to become a tool for credit-bearing courses: Ten state university systems recently joined Coursera in a move that could include credit, but is more clearly a bet on using the MOOC platform to increase their reach. EdX is smaller – 27 university partners, 50 courses, and 930,000 students – and has focused more on developing online tools. Udacity, the for-profit started by Dr. Thrun with David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky, has a reputation for strong teaching in math and technology.

While MOOCs are still evolving, they have flourished because they are a mash-up of what many people love: engaging information in video form, gaming, and social networking. In less than a year, they have grown from a handful of courses by a few professors to hundreds of offerings from institutions around the world. Moving tales circulate of people in remote areas whose lives have been changed by free learning from top universities. On campuses, however, MOOCs are less a wondrous new thing than a force unraveling traditions and driving campus leaders to reexamine what it is they do and how they do it.

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On the Tuesday after Memorial Day 2012, Duke University Provost Peter Lange called Lynne O'Brien, director of the college's Center for Instructional Technology, with a simple question: Should Duke begin offering MOOCs? And by the way, he added, we have only about a week to decide.

The university quickly gathered faculty members. Professors wanted in. Duke announced in July that it would partner with Coursera and initially offer eight courses. The first, "Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach," began Sept. 24. The instructor, Roger Barr, who looks like Jimmy Carter in suspenders, had taught the same course on campus for 20 years to about 20 to 30 students a semester. Overnight, he was reaching 7,500 from 110 different countries. Dr. O'Brien tracked the MOOC and in February issued a report confirming what other universities have found: Lots of students enroll, but only a handful stick with it. About 300 ended up finishing the class.

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