In the fall of 2011, around 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in a Stanford-sponsored online course about artificial intelligence. About 23,000 completed the course and got certificates, including 248 who got a perfect score. The university offered the same course the old-fashioned way to students sitting in Stanford classrooms. None of the those students got a perfect score.
The lesson: There's a lot of motivated talent out there beyond the ivy-covered walls of traditional academia. They don't attend a traditional college because they can't afford it, or they have family responsibilities or jobs. But they do have access to the Internet, along with a thirst for knowledge.
That online course on artificial intelligence eventually grew into Udacity, which currently offers a course on building a search engine. That course includes an introduction to Python. My grasp of Python is weak -- I have trouble with object-oriented languages in general, since they were invented after I left college.
I watched the first few lessons, and I encourage everyone to try them out. I was happily surprised to see Google founder Sergey Brin drop by for a guest spot. Odds are that won't happen at your local college.
An introduction to Python is probably too basic for you, but I see that Berkeley offers a class on quantum mechanics and quantum computation over on edX.
Some of these free massive open online courses (MOOCs) can even be used to get actual college credit, includes these five math and science courses from Coursera. Whether they are for credit or not, the number of MOOCs is expanding, and many major colleges and universities are jumping on the bandwagon.
Georgia Tech offers Coursera-based classes on everything from robotics, the cloud, and combinatorial game technology to computational photography, psychology, and music technology.
Two of the major players, Coursera and edX, unveiled major expansions in February, announcing more courses and more participating colleges. Coursera, for example, now counts 62 colleges and universities as members.
These traditional colleges are following a now well-known principle: Destroy your own business model before someone else does it for you. But are these online courses as good as traditional, instructor-led classroom sessions? In many cases, the answer is yes.
Physics and chemistry labs might be difficult to organize for an online course, and there are students who benefit from face-to-face contact with their teachers. But online courses give students access to the world's top educators, let them work at their own pace, and enable them to repeat units as necessary. In addition, instructors can see immediately which lessons work well and which ones leave students stumped, and they can improve the course with every iteration.
We've seen online courses before. In fact, many colleges now offer them. MOOCs differ in their scale, their cost, and their global reach.
One story in particular caught my attention. Askhat Murzabayev, a computer science student in Kazakhstan, wanted to learn about artificial intelligence -- a subject not covered at his university. He took Stanford's machine learning class through Coursera, passed the final exam, got his certificate, and was offered a job with Twitter.
Students who take and finish these courses have to be self-motivated and seriously committed. Those from non-English-speaking countries have to overcome language barriers.
You should keep an eye on what's happening in this area, both as a way to help your employees upgrade their skills and as a potential source of new talent. In addition, many of these platforms have plans to offer employer-friendly tools in the future, such as the ability to search for particular skills in student resumes.
You never know. As you browse the ever-increasing amount of offerings, you may well find a course you're interested in taking -- or teaching.
— Maria Korolov is president of Trombly International, an editorial services company that provides coverage of emerging technologies and markets. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years.