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Stanford professor resigns, launches Udacity: Free, online, university-level computer science courses

Online higher education got a big boost this week when Sebastian Thrun, a professor of computer science at Stanford, announced he was stepping down to start Udacity — an online educational venture. Udacity's goal is to provide free university-level computer science classes to anyone interested in advancing their tech knowledge. Its first course, available this month, is titled "Building Your Own Search Engine."

Udacity joins a growing number of organizations providing free college level courses, including Yale's Open Courses, MIT's OpenCourseWare, and UK-based Open University.

And although these programs appear to be on the rise, some educators argue that they don't adequately prepare students for subsequent coursework. Nevertheless a 2010 U.S. Department of Education report on online learning suggested that in many cases, student learning outcomes in online courses are superior to those in traditional face-to-face courses.

In a discussion of the report on Bits, a New York Times Technology blog, it was observed that, "The real promise of online education is providing learning experiences that are more tailored to individual students than is possible in classrooms. That enables more 'learning by doing,' which many students find more engaging and useful."

This benefit does not just apply to university-level courses. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, says the ability to tailor programs to fit the needs of students is the future of primary and secondary eduction, too. In his TED talk on education, Mr. Khan discussed the way his online math program is being used in fifth and seventh grade classrooms in Los Altos, Calif.. The program allows students to work on problems independently, at their own pace. A teacher is able to monitor the progress of all the students simultaneously. If they notice a particular student is stuck on a problem, they can go help the student.