Last updated: 19.08.11

Free university e-learning courses attract thousands

In 2011, Stanford University's free introductory distance learning online degree in artificial intelligence attracted thousands of students, barely a month after it was announced. The Californian University’s initiative represented the world's first completely free, open-access university-level course utilising the virtual learning environment and attracted 58,000 learners in just a matter of weeks, according to a report in the New York Times. By 2018, there were more than 160 online courses available, many of which are free, and more than 10 million individuals had enrolled in these massive online open courses (MOOCs). Let’s take a look.

The start of free online distance learning

Such was the initial popularity of the experimental online learning project that Stanford University's computer science department quickly announced a further two free online distance learning courses, and that number has grown rapidly.

"The vision is: change the world by bringing education to places that can't be reached today," said Dr Sebastian Thrun, one of the world's most prolific and respected artificial intelligence experts and a course instructor.

"Through the web's capabilities, we are extending the reach of existing education," he told the Daily Telegraph.

Online distance learning today

In 2018, Stanford revamped their online offering, resulting in dozens and dozens of free courses becoming available. From introductions to complex principles such as the theory of relativity, to useful professional skills such as entrepreneurial thought, there’s a huge range of courses to choose from.

One of the most interesting discussion points to come out of this is the benefit to course creators as well as learners. Creating these MOOCs has given teachers an opportunity to think differently about how course material is developed.

Andy Saltarelli, senior director of instructional design, evaluation and research with VPTL (Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning) said: “Stanford faculty are passionate about sharing their knowledge with a wider audience, and we’re just helping them do that,”

“The experience of creating MOOCs allows them to reflect on and advance their teaching here on campus. And the content they create also becomes helpful, supplementary material for Stanford students.”

Why are free university e-learning courses so popular?

Distance learning courses delivered via e-learning programmes allow people to learn at their own pace, wherever and whenever is most convenient to them. When learners are able to study in an environment they are comfortable in, they are more likely to retain information.

If it's their first time studying at university level, having the chance to go back over aspects they didn't quite understand can be hugely beneficial.

Free open university courses give people the chance to enhance their knowledge in a range of subject areas. This could open up new opportunities for them in many different sectors, as well as helping them to progress in their current careers, so these courses are always going to be popular. Many courses that result in a qualification do come with a cost, but even the free courses do present well on a CV.

At Virtual College, we have a wide variety of distance learning courses that provide all of these benefits. We’re proud to be leaders in delivering e-learning courses to individuals and businesses, spanning a wide range of subjects, from professional development, to health and safety, cyber security and more.

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