A year ago few believed you could offer elite higher learning experiences--as distinguished from merely learning materials, like MIT's Open Courseware --online for free, much less that this concept would attract significant venture capital as a for-profit startup idea. Now the Yale-meets-YouTube field is getting crowded: the Minerva Project , Udacity , MITx  (a nonprofit startup under MIT's auspices) and the latest entrant, Coursera . Coursera's cofounders, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, are Stanford professors, just like Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun; all three participated in Stanford's massively open online course project  last fall, where over 160,000 people worldwide signed up to take free courses.
Coursera courses follow a simple basic format of short, Khan-academy style videos, 5- to 10-minute chunks of lectures, with an assessment question embedded after each one to make sure you're on track. Koller says the format is much better for learning than a traditional live lecture. "When you're giving a lecture and you stop to ask a question, 50% of the class are scribbling away and didn't hear you, another 20% are on Facebook, and one smarty-pants in the front row blurts out the answer and you feel good. This way, every single person needs to answer the question and retrieve the information, which builds neural pathways."
For their initial launch, Coursera is partnering with professors at Princeton, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania as well as Stanford to offer versions of their courses online. These will vary by discipline--unlike Udacity and MITx, they will include humanities topics like poetry and sociology, some of which will offer live video discussion.
"I would have to teach for 250 years to reach the same number of students that I did in one semester with this online course," says Ng, summing up the appeal for himself and the other professors on the platform: extreme impact. The pitch appealed to no less than John Doerr, the Intel billionaire and legendary Kleiner Perkins investor, who is underwriting their launch. He and other backers just invested $16 million  in Coursera.
[Image: Flickr user Kayaker 1204 ]