About 250,000 students signed up for seven classes UC Irvine is offering online for free this semester, Larry Cooperman, the director of OpenCourseWare at the university, said.
They'll all be allowed to attend.
Those students will become data in a years-long experiment UCI and a consortium of other universities is conducting that proponents believe could shift the frontier of education.
"If you take education and turn it from a privilege to a basic human right, it means that anyone who has the skill and the motivation can basically learn something that can make a better life for themselves and their family," Stanford professor Daphne Koller said at UCI this week.
She and a consortium of university professors want to see if a classroom can scale from dozens to tens of thousands with a new kind of course called a Massive Open Online Course.
Since 2007, UCI has experimented with MOOCs, Cooperman said.
Universities develop these courses and offer them through an online provider. Princeton, Stanford, UCI and 30 other universities have partnered with a company called Coursera.
On Tuesday, Koller, one of Coursera's founders, told a UCI audience the outcome of the MOOCs experiment so far and how they might fit in with the future of education.
"It gives us a new range of possibilities of how to exploit this technology to reduce costs, improve learning outcomes, or both," she said.
Using data from tens of thousands of students in a class can quickly teach instructors what methods work.
Two hundred of 10,000 students giving the same wrong answer on an exam is much more noticeable than 2 of 100, Koller said.
That, in turn, can help instructors refine their courses by creating instant feedback or developing a grading rubric for peers to asses other students.
The idea, Cooperman said, is not to have a professorless class, but a professor-lite class.
"One thing that just does not scale is one instructor answering questions for 10,000 or 15,000 people," Koller said.
MOOCs haven't been without their bumps. Media outlets across the nation reported on a Coursera class that was suspended this week after too many of its 40,000 students complained about disorganization and technical problems.
"You can't replace higher education with this," Cooperman said, instead suggesting you can broaden and improve it.
UCI, he said, wants to glean anything they can from MOOCs to improve distance learning for its own students.
But he also believes the university can provide high-quality classes with a wider reach.
A pre-algebra MOOC UCI offered this semester could be refined into a class community colleges across the state could use to give remedial students a boost, Cooperman said.
"We need to use these cost-efficient technologies to figure out how everyone has the opportunity to get a quality higher education, or as much of an education as they want," he said.
There's no guarantee, though, whether that education will carry the heft of a degree from a top college.
Currently, Coursera provides an instructor-signed course-completion certificate with a disclaimer saying they don't know if the student was the one actually doing the course work.
If the student wants to prove they did in fact do the work, they can take an exam in which a proctor monitors the student through a webcam, Koller said. That service costs students $50 or can be waived through a financial-aid application.
How MOOCs apply to a college degree is even more complicated.
"Credit is always in the eye of the receiver," Cooperman said.
It's up to individual institutions whether or not they'll apply MOOC certificates to degrees — the Holy Grail, according to Koller.
All those details, Cooperman and Koller said, are part of the ongoing experiment to adapt education to a world that has changed technologically.
"The days in which what we learned in college was still good enough to sustain us 15 years later as productive members of society, those days are long gone," Koller said. "The world is moving much to fast."