The paint is barely dry at its offices, yet edX, the non-profit start-up from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has 370,000 students this autumn in its first official MOOCs, or massive open online courses. That's nothing. Coursera, founded just in January, has reached more than 1.7 million - growing "faster than Facebook", boasts Andrew Ng, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, who took leave to run his for-profit MOOC provider.
"This has caught all of us by surprise," says David Stavens, who formed a company called Udacity with Sebastian Thrun and Mike Sokolsky after more than 150,000 signed up for Thrun's "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence" last autumn, starting the revolution that has higher education gasping. A year ago, he says, "we were three guys in Sebastian's living room and now we have 40 employees full time".
MOOCs have been around for a few years as collaborative techie learning events, but this is the year everyone wants in. Elite universities are partnering with Coursera at a furious pace. It now offers courses from 33 of the biggest names in post-secondary education, including Princeton, Brown, Columbia and Duke. In September, Google unleashed a MOOC-building online tool, and Stanford unveiled Class2Go with two courses.
Nick McKeown is teaching one of them, on computer networking, with Philip Levis (the one with a shock of magenta hair in the introductory video). McKeown sums up the energy of this grand experiment as he gushes: "We're both very excited." Casually draped over auditorium seats, the professors also acknowledge that they are not exactly sure how this MOOC stuff works.
"We are just going to see how this goes over the next few weeks," McKeown says.
Traditional online courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrolment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors. The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive. Because anyone with an internet connection can enrol, faculty can't respond to students individually. So the course design - how material is presented and the interactivity - counts for a lot. As do fellow students. Classmates may lean on one another in study groups organised in their towns, in online forums or for grading work.
The evolving form knits together education, entertainment (think gaming) and social networking. Unlike its antecedent, open courseware - usually written materials or videotapes of lectures that make you feel as if you're spying on a class from the back of the room - the MOOC is a full course made with you in mind.....