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Education is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of social machinery — Horace Mann, American education reformer

Late last year, I wrote in this column about Stanford University’s free online computer courses. The same courses are now being offered by a newly formed organization called Coursera.

Co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng think that the technology and the sociology of online courses have finally reached a point that the American public is now ready for this initiative.

Stanford offered the free online computer courses to non-Stanford students earlier this year. The online students received a signed letter from the instructor after completion of the course.

However, they didn’t get academic credits for the lessons. The computer courses required deadlines, evaluations, discussions and, in some cases, state of achievement — much like what is being done in the regular, face-to-face classroom courses.

Both Professors Koller and Ng taught the online computer lessons to as many as 160,000 online students at each computer class. Ng said that more than half of the number of enrollees in his class attempted to solve one particular problem, and some 23,000 of them solved it.

Through Coursera, co-founders Koller and Ng are going to attempt to conduct the successful computer courses outside the Stanford institution.

Other organizations and top schools in the US are following suit in offering online courses.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (better known as MIT) announced last December that it will open free online courses which will start this spring.

MIT’s online class platform, called MITx, will make online students eligible for certification after they complete the program.

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The catch, however, is that MIT will not put its famous name on the certificates which will instead bear the name of a non-profit organization that MIT will establish soon.

University of the People is also a tuition-free, online-only school. Its mission is to create a truly global opportunity for education. Because it is a non-profit organization, it is run mostly by 2,000 volunteer educators who teach each more than 1,000 students in 115 countries.

New York University announced last year that it would accept students from the University of the People to attend classes at its Abu Dhabi campus in the Middle East. This gives credibility to the excellent work of the organization.

In addition, Hewlett-Packard is also offering virtual internships to the students through its consortia of partners. The University of the People offers degree programs in business administration and in computer science.

Other top schools, such as the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Georgetown University in Washington, DC have likewise launched online degree programs through startup courses called “2tor.” However, the programs are limited in class size and collect  standard tuition fees.

A research suggests that online learning can be just as effective as classroom learning. In a 2009 report on 50 independent studies, the U.S. Department of Education found that students who studied in online learning environment performed modestly better than their peers who received face-to-face instruction.

Bill Gates predicted in a 2010 interview that in five years, the greatest lectures in the world will be available in the web for free. It looks like this Gates prediction is starting to come true.

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Will the courses continue to be free of charge?

If you have time and interest, you may just as well grab this opportunity while it is still free.