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Free online classes from Duke, other prestigious universities continue to grow in popularity

Published: Monday, Jan. 14 2013 8:30 a.m. MST

In this photo taken in 2012, Peter Struck, associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, prepares to record a lecture on Greek Mythology in Philadelphia. Last fall, 54,000 people from around the world took his online class for free through a company called Coursera.

Matt Slocum, AP

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Going to college for free.

Sounds laughably too good to be true, right? Especially if you add that the courses available for free are administered by top universities like Stanford, Washington and Duke — among many others.

However two million people in December participated in just that: free online college courses provided by 33 major universities, according to an article in The New York Times. The courses are administered through a company called Coursera, which was started about a year-and-a-half ago by two computer science professors at Stanford University.

Cheapest online colleges

Paid online classes are sometimes cheaper than attending actual universities. A list compiled by College Stats listed the least-expensive online universities. The cheapest was $5,090 — both for out of state and in state. Online classes in general charge the same tuition — whether you're in state or out of state.

So what’s in it for these universities that are providing free courses? Why are they so willing to give away for free what others are paying thousands for?

It's not for Coursera's financial gain — at least not right now.

Coursera is hoping to make revenue in a different way. Right now its greatest source of revenue comes from schools that are willing to pay for licensing. Licensing allows them either to provide a ready-made class for students to take, or to use video lectures.

“Monetization is not the most important objective for this business at this point,” said Scott Sandell, a Coursera financier who is a general partner at New Enterprise Associates, to The New York Times. “What is important is that Coursera is rapidly accumulating a body of high-quality content that could be very attractive to universities that want to license it for their own use. We invest with a very long mindset, and the gestation period of the very best companies is at least 10 years.”

These courses have generally been for learning — not for credit. Currently, most universities don’t accept them as credit. But the company recently added the option to sign up for getting credit, which costs a fee. In this sense, it’s not technically going to college for free.

Eventually, Coursera may start follow-up courses after the initial ones, which would require a fee.

Still, considering it costs universities about $50,000 to create one online class, it's an inexpensive way to increase education.

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