Educators at Stanford University are paving the way for the future of online learning by providing free lectures on the Internet, but the idea of a prestigious college providing mass online education for free remains the subject of intense debate:

“Within days of going online with little fanfare, the three free courses attracted 350,000 registrants from 190 countries—mostly computer and software industry professionals looking to sharpen their skills. ‘To put that in context,’ Ng says, ‘in order to reach a comparably sized audience on campus I would have to teach my normal Stanford course for 250 years.’

“The stories behind those numbers were compelling. One person who completed Ng’s machine learning course was an engineer at Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. Another was a 54-year-old Romanian engineer named Octavian Manescu. He wrote that his job had been on the line, but after following Ng’s course ‘with great pleasure and enthusiasm,’ he asked his CTO if he could use machine learning to monitor the complex telecommunications systems in his company. ‘At first my idea was received with disbelief,’ he wrote, but he finally gained approval to conduct some tests, with results ‘so convincing that my proposal became a part of a major project. Currently I’m working on its implementation.’”