My first attempt at taking one of those new online college courses was even more like my real college experience than I ever imagined. With the class still in the early going I was about a week behind on my assignments, nearly flunking my first quiz and seriously contemplating dropping the class.
So much for the old college try.
But two things made me stick with it (at least up until now, with two more weeks to go) -- one a little embarrassing and the other somewhat profound.
First the embarrassing: My Coursera class called "Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies" comes with a promise: If I can finish the course work and score at least 70 percent on my assignments, I'll receive a statement of accomplishment. I want that statement.
But more important than that, were the classmates I've encountered. Yeah, classmates. I've got a few, like 85,000 by the instructor's count in week two of the course. Let's just say the lecture hall would have been a little crowded in pre-Internet days. No we don't gather together physically, but we are able to socialize, commiserate and help and encourage each other on a series of message boards. And it is from those message boards that I've found both my inspiration to press on and a spirit that points to the powerful potential these new courses have.
The courses are known in the industry as MOOCs -- massive (as in 85,000 students), open (as in to anyone) online (as in Web-based), courses
My fellow students are living in South Africa, Bangladesh, Algeria, the Philippines, Iran, Portugal, Peru, Amsterdam, Madagascar, Greece, Pakistan and on and on. Our teacher, James V. Green of the University of Maryland, told us in the second week that he found 20 countries represented that started with the letter B alone.
Nearly two-thirds of the students were taking their first entrepreneurship class and 45 percent of the students, who skewed on the young side, intended to start a business soon. In other words, the class represented the future and not just any future, but in many cases the future of the developing world.
"I have seen and encountered my fair share of human suffering," Yusuf Abdulrasheed Alimi, a veterinarian from Nigeria, wrote in a thread asking students to introduce themselves. "That is my chief motivation for wanting to start my own business; to empower myself and my community."
The posts are full of dreams and determination, though often
When I talked to Andrew Ng, the Stanford computer science associate professor who helped launch the for-profit Coursera not quite a year ago, he said that providing the developing world with potential was one of the most satisfying aspects of the company so far.
"When everyone in the world has access to a great education, it really means we can move forward to a world where there is an equality of opportunity," says Ng, who was inspired to start Coursera in part by an online Stanford Machine Learning course he offered that attracted 100,000 students worldwide who were interested in that branch of artificial intelligence.
That course showed Ng almost immediately the sort of reach online education can have. He was taken by the stories of his many students -- from a poor man in India with a passion for machine learning to a single mother in the United States who had a long-standing goal.
"There was a single mother that had been working to go back to school and for whom an online class really gave her her first opportunity to do so," Ng says.
Green, the University of Maryland lecturer who teaches my class, says part of the appeal of teaching a MOOC is that you are faced with a class of students who bring with them a nearly limitless variety of life experiences, including those not found on U.S. campuses.
"I have University of Maryland students that are going to miss class because they have an interview with Google (GOOG)." "In our course," he says of the innovative ideas class, "I had a student who emailed me because he was late with a submission, because the Internet was spotty in a refugee camp in Thailand, I think it was."
The accessibility and flexibility of the online classes appear to be a winning combination. What started as a research project run by Ng and four students is now a massive venture-backed online university offering more than 300 courses from 62 schools and serving about 2.7 million students, according to Coursera. All of which leaves its founders slightly stunned.
"The progress of Coursera, and the MOOC adoption more broadly, has greatly exceeded my wildest expectations," co-founder, Daphne Koller says in an email.
No doubt that is a good thing for those rooting for the big online classroom model. Even better for the rest of us is the fact that because of the idea's early successes, the expectations for the way the world gets educated are being rewritten on a daily basis.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.