Coursera Hits 1 Million Students, With Udacity Close Behind

Breakdown of where Coursera students live.

Coursera, an upstart company working with selective universities to offer free online courses, announced this week that it had reached one million registered students. A rival company, Udacity, which also offers what have become known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC’s, says it has more than 739,000 students.

The numbers, however, are more symbolic of interest in free online courses than indicative of the amount of learning taking place. For instance, a co-founder of Coursera, Andrew Ng, noted in an e-mail interview that the number of active students is significantly lower because many registrations are for courses that have not yet begun. And many people sign up for the free courses but don’t end up following through by doing the coursework.

Students in MOOC’s typically watch short video lectures, complete automatically graded tests or assignments, and use online communities to work through concepts they don’t understand. In most cases, no official university credit is given, but providers of the programs plan to make money by offering students who finish the courses a certificate if they pay a small fee.

Coursera has signed up some of the world’s best-known universities, including Princeton University and the University of Virginia. Udacity, which works with individual professors rather than with institutions, has attracted a range of well-known scholars. Both companies started with a focus on courses in computer science, but Coursera is now expanding into a variety of disciplines.

Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun, said in an e-mail interview that his company planned to remain focused on computer science and related fields. “We are not doing humanities,” he said.

Other players in the MOOC game declined to provide updated numbers when asked by The Chronicle this week. They include edX, an effort run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley; and Udemy, a company offering free courses that are mainly taught by book authors.

Coursera said that it had students registered in 196 countries. The highest proportions are in the United States (38 percent), Brazil (6 percent), India (5 percent), and China (4 percent). The breakdown is similar at Udacity, which says it has students in 203 countries, with the greatest numbers hailing from the United States (42 percent), India (7 percent), Britain (5 percent), and Germany (4 percent).

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