Although I can’t imagine that many students are going to jump at the opportunity to sign up for additional, non-credit classes at the beginning of the fall semester – no matter how free they are – I shall nevertheless continue undeterred in telling what I believe to be one of the most exciting new internet startup’s since… I don’t know, facebook maybe. And even though this post will, almost assuredly, make me sound a bit like a curmudgeon, it’s difficult for me not to lament that a resource such as the internet, with its limitless possibilities for communication, learning and self-improvement, has been predominantly utilized instead to watch other people’s cats do silly things. Not that I too don’t like to watch those impossibly cute videos of cats trying to get their heads out of, say, a Kleenex box, a tin can, a vase, a hamster ball, a paper bag, a plastic bag, a soda box, a plastic cup, (had I time, I could probably continue this list of examples until it included every known device or conveyance possible to be stuck smug on a cat’s head)… but I always had this unwieldy hope that the internet could meld technology, education, and entertainment in a package that would draw even the most incurious gaze to its enchanting and insightful glow (yes, despite my pessimism, I am a romantic democrat at heart; I blame Walt Whitman). While I still can’t say this dream is close at hand, there is hope.
Coursera, a startup founded by two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, offers free college level classes from some of the top universities in the world, including Johns Hopkins, Princeton, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in France, and the University of Toronto. The five- to twelve-week classes range in subject matter from contemporary poetry to quantum physics to heterogeneous parallel programing (I don’t even know what that is). The classes are taught by some of the world’s leading scholars and many of them require little to no prior knowledge of the subject, and no expensive textbooks. And still, I have not gotten to the best part (besides the fact that schools like the University of Pennsylvania are offering classes without the $50,000 a year price tag): people are signing up for the classes, and signing up at insane rates, almost 900,000 students so far, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education. With numbers like that, I can feel my pessimism melting away, and the meow of so many internet cats fading to a whisper indistinguishable from the static of technologies past.
By Adam Shutz