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Senior Correspondent

I always thought that the real purpose of a computer was to teach me things. I never imagined, though, that I would have to put the proposition to such an extreme test. The challenge came in the form of a midlife career change that required getting up to speed on subjects like calculus, astrophysics and propulsion technology, all of this related to work on space exploration for a foundation that was raising money for cutting-edge research. The Internet came through in the form of YouTube videos, online lectures and the complete course offerings of many MIT faculty, the latter of which I could access through the school’s OpenCourseware site (ocw.mit.edu).

I found myself learning the ropes in complicated topics, but the path hasn’t always been easy. Digital learning, despite its promise, is still inconsistent and incomplete, with gaps in terms of mentoring and student-teacher relationships that you can drive a truck through. That’s why I’m so interested in Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun, who has now left the school to start an online educational venture called Udacity (www.udacity.com). The name contains the idea — it’s a university with an audacious purpose, to translate Thrun and colleagues’ experience with online education into a workable global venture that can expand into new subject areas. Thrun has plenty of experience to back up his ambitions. At Stanford last fall, he joined former NASA scientist Peter Norvig, now director of research at Google, to teach a free course in artificial intelligence, one that wound up attracting not just the 30 students of an average university classroom but a whopping 160,000, some 23,000 of which finished it. Thrun recalls long nights when he and Norvig worked on their video presentations and interacted with students through email and chat. They used volunteers to translate their classes into 40 languages and graduated students from 190 countries. Talk about global reach — the duo had more students from tiny Lithuania than the total number of undergraduate students at Stanford.

The differences between an online course and a university offering are clear enough. Students working with Thrun and Norvig received no Stanford grades or credit. Instead, they got a hardly prestigious certificate affirming they had passed the course. ‘Office hours’ did not involve one-on-one help but posting to online discussion areas. And unlike the university, where there is an overall similarity in students’ age and position on the first rungs of the career ladder, the online course catered to everyone from motivated housewives to retirees looking for ideas.

But not everyone is after a degree. It’s the open availability to high-quality course materials that excites me about what Thrun is planning for Udacity, which is building a team of educators and engineers to push the educational experience into under-served areas around the globe. We may think of third-world countries in Africa and Asia when we hear such ambitions, but a PC and an Internet connection are opening up adult education opportunities everywhere. The trick will be to use streaming video and interactive technologies effectively, finding ways to manage student participation without being submerged in an incoming sea of emails and chat requests.

Thrun and Norvig found at Stanford, for example, that trying to run office hours using Google+, a social networking service, was impractical because of the number of students involved. For the artificial intelligence class, a collaborative site called Aiqus turned out to be the place to discuss homework and tests, and the teachers learned how to use the site’s moderation features to address student needs despite the numbers. The thing to remember is that online education is a work in progress. Degree options are out there, but it is also a priceless opportunity for self-motivated learners whose goal is knowledge more than compiling university credits.

So keep an eye on Udacity, and on online learning sites like Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org). The latter is similarly bold in its purpose, saying it wants to provide ‘a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.’ I used Khan Academy while trying to recall decades-old classes in geometry, finding I could pick questions precisely and see focused videos on just what I needed. The videos here range from mathematics to biology, finance, art history and more, a library of practical exercises and examples. We’re still building the online educational platform, but sites like these are where to look if your idea of learning is lifelong.

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