Free online engineering courses prove a big hit

In the month since Stanford put 10 of its most popular computer science and electrical engineering courses on the Internet and made them available—for free—to anyone in the world, 200,000 people have visited the site Stanford Engineering Everywhere (http://see.stanford.edu).

There have been some surprises. No one had predicted a flood of visits from Brazil, a turnout that placed the country behind only Canada on the list of hits from foreign countries. (Rounding out the top five were China, Italy and the United Kingdom.)

The Stanford program is significantly different from most online offerings of college courses. It's not just videos of lectures; the website provides downloads of full course materials including syllabi, handouts, homework and exams. Online study sessions through Facebook and other social sites are encouraged. About the only thing not being handed out is college credit.

The courses, from programming to robotics, are available at Stanford Engineering Everywhere, YouTube and iTunes, and through BitTorrent downloads.

The course offerings are clearly popular, but gauging the number of students is difficult. Counting site visits does not give a clear answer, since students do not have to revisit the site for each lecture; the entire learning package, lectures and all, may be downloaded in one swoop.

The School of Engineering is encouraging teachers at other institutions to use the course materials if they wish. "You might have somebody in China translate it. We'd be happy for them to do that," said Andy DiPaolo, the executive director of the Stanford Center for Professional Development.

The students range from professionals brushing up their skills to teenagers in high school. For some, this is an opportunity to "experience what they might otherwise never have a chance to touch," DiPaolo said.

He enjoys reading the e-mails sent by far-flung students. "Thanks for sharing your great content and knowledge to the world," wrote one. "Hey there! First off I just wanted to say THANK YOU SO MUCH—you just saved me like 20,000 dollars," wrote another.