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How online learning is reinventing college

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"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.

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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