I’ll start by listing what I think are all the weaknesses of a traditional class one can take at the university and how something like the Coursera or Udacity experience blow those away. I’ll also argue why I think that those two sites are starting a revolution in education. As my main point of comparison thus far is a pure Computer Science/Maths class, please assume that the following points hold at least for such a context, though I believe they should apply for most fields of science.
From the least important to the most significant:
(1) In a traditional class, if you come late to a course and miss, e.g, the first 5-10 minutes (it happens…), you might end up being lost, or just behind, during the whole duration of the (up- to-few-hours) course, seriously not optimizing or, rather, wasting your time. No need to argue why an online course solves that.
(2) In a pure math or very technical class, your first step to understanding the course deeply is to get the best notes you can during the course, and most of the time, you wish that you could do “pause” for few minutes, to write down how you understood a certain concept. Instead, you often try to write down what you got while the professor continues speaking and moves to another concept, which could result in you having a hard time catching up after you’ve captured your idea about the previous point.
(3) is a corollary of (2). Many times you feel that a certain part of the course/class is easy for you, and you wish you could do “fast forward” to get to the next concept. Instead, you start being distracted, and often you’re not concentrated enough when the class reaches again a point that you need to follow.
(4) In assignments and/or final exam, in a traditional class, if you happen to be having a bad day or are stressed and do a stupid mistake, you might ruin your exam, even if you labored for days and nights and are super serious during the entire course, the grade you’ll get won’t accurately represent your understanding of the class.
With Coursera/Udacity, you can submit your assignment, fail, sometimes get feedback, understand your error, and retry (made possible thanks to automatic/instant grading! impossible with a “live” professor). Trying, failing, improving. This is how you get better. Failing the final exam in a traditional class because of a stupid mistake can cost you a year!!
Think also about a student who fails in an early assignment. In a traditional class, he’ll get penalized for the whole course because of that, as his grade will be bounded by this early failure. This is stupid. If you give him an unlimited amount of retries until he gets a perfect score for each assignments (as with Coursera/Udacity), you’ll not only end up with much less students giving up early, but also with much more highly motivated students who will try to get the perfect score, just because they have the opportunity to get to it (don’t get me wrong, not everyone is like that, but the ones that are will flourish in Coursera/Udacity while they could have potentially withered in a traditional class).
(5) If you get stuck in any assignment, in a traditional class you won’t necessarily find someone (who is successful in the class) who is willing to help you. In Coursera/Udacity, if you get stuck in something, with virtually up to 100k students in your class, it is *highly* likely that someone else has had the same problem and shared it already or is willing to discuss it with you in the forums. This is powerful.
(6) Depending on which university you are at, you can end up with the best or the worst professors. It is obvious that your learning experience will be dramatically different depending on the quality of the professor and the content he’s teaching. Coursera/Udacity offer courses from arguably some of the best possible professors of each discipline and/or from the most influential folks in the computer science industry. E.g., even if I can’t prove it, I believe that most of the Introductions to Machine Learning or AI [Artificial Intelligence] classes around the world in traditional universities are of lesser quality (or at best of equivalent quality) than the one taught by Professor Andrew Ng at Coursera (or Peter Norvig/Sebastien Thrun before he founded Udacity) — of course, if you compare similar covered material/concepts.
(7) I grew up and studied in France, where university is mostly free. As you know, it doesn’t work that way in the rest of the world, especially in top universities. The fact that with Coursera, e.g., I have free access to the quality of professors and content of Stanford is simply amazing. Before Coursera, only a handful of lucky (and talented and/or rich) students had access to such a privilege every year.
(8) To strengthen point (7), think about it at large: your country/city of origin may be far from being a capital, or may be a place where you’re unlikely to get good or even decent professors in very specialized disciplines. In these cases, with these websites (Coursera/Udacity), you jump from mediocrity to excellence. I don’t see how universities in the world teaching sciences could ignore that fact long term: what’s the point in attending the class of an average teacher with average content, maybe even pay a lot for that, when the best professors and content are available for free and online? I’m not saying that universities will disappear of course 🙂 but they will need to adapt, and to find a way to combine the benefits of Coursera/Udacity-type programs into their own programs in some way.
(9) When you make available online the best possible material on Machine Learning or AI from Stanford, it means that the available “baseline” knowledge is already at the level of excellence. The most solid foundations are available to anyone willing to acquire them. The result will be much better educated/sharper people in a given field, making everyone starting from the best basis possible and thus raising the level up significantly.
(10) You actually don’t need to wait for university until you take those courses. I’m sure any geeky teenager (maybe even younger) could attend the so-awesome Introduction to Computer Science by David Ewans, which introduces the core basic concepts of computer science based on a compelling project of building a functional web search engine (yes yes, with crawling, indexing, search, etc.; it is really the most compelling way to get introduced to computer science you can think of). Same applies for any professional who already started a career in a non-related field, and would like to acquire important technical knowledge about how to program, etc. Long term, I think it will create new kinds of entrepreneurs and impact positively the career of millions.