Engineering Education: New Online Offerings Are Class Acts

Noted faculty from top universities now are teaching free web-based courses.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

Do you regret not taking a particular college course because you now would find it valuable or interesting? The demands of the core engineering curriculum might have made attending the classes impossible or perhaps the particular course wasn’t available.

Identifying top-notch courses can pose a real challenge.

Maybe you’ve considered taking online courses. However, as with much on the web, quality can vary immensely. Identifying top-notch offerings can pose a real challenge.

So, what three enterprises — Coursera, Udacity and edX — now are doing deserves special attention. They recently launched free online courses given by distinguished faculty from prestigious universities.

Coursera ( was founded in the fall of 2011 by two computer science professors at Stanford University, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. It debuted its first seven courses in March and now offers ones from 16 universities around the world: Caltech, Duke, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Laussane (Switzerland), Edinburgh (Scotland), Georgia Tech, Illinois, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Toronto, University of California — San Francisco, Virginia and Washington (Seattle).

“The Coursera platform will allow our faculty to explore ways to improve teaching in our own classrooms, while at the same time allowing them to make exceptional educational opportunities available well beyond the confines of our campus,” notes Shirley M. Tilghman, president of Princeton, in explaining the school’s participation.

Coursera today lists 120 courses in 16 categories. Each takes from four to ten weeks. Topics include “Intermediate Organic Chemistry” from Illinois, “Chemistry: Concept Development and Application” from Rice, “Mathematical Biostatistics Boot Camp” from Johns Hopkins, “Game Theory” from Stanford, “Artificial Intelligence Planning” from Edinburgh, “Principles of Economics for Scientists” from Caltech, “Introduction to Computational Finance and Financial Econometrics” from Washington, “A History of the World Since 1300” from Princeton, “Introduction to Astronomy” from Duke, “Fantasy & Science Fiction: the Human Mind, Our Modern World” from Michigan and “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry” from Penn.

Courses include video lectures with interactive assignments and quizzes as well as collaborative online forums. People successfully completing courses receive certificates but not university credit toward degrees.

Udacity ( also has a strong link to Stanford. Its genesis was a free online computer-science course offered by the school in 2011 that proved wildly popular. The firm’s cofounders are Sebastian Thrun, research professor at the school, who is now a Google Fellow, and two former researchers there, David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky.

Udacity launched its first two courses in February and now offers 14, most focusing on computer science. These include beginning courses like “Intro to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine” and “Intro to Statistics: Making Decisions Based on Data,” intermediate ones like “Web Application Engineering: How to Build a Blog” and “How to Build a Startup: The Lean Launch Pad,” and advanced courses like “Design of Computer Programs: Programming Principles” and “Applied Cryptography: Science of Secrets.”

Courses consist of six to nine installments — each of which is designed to provide a week’s worth of instruction and homework, says Udacity. Sessions involve video lectures with integrated quizzes. Instructors come from schools such as Brown, Utah, Saarland (Germany), Stanford and Virginia, as well as from firms such as Google and Hipmunk.

People successfully completing courses receive certificates.

Three schools now are involved in edX ( In late July, the University of California — Berkeley joined original co-founders MIT and Harvard, which launched the venture in May. The group hopes to add other universities from around the world in coming months.

This fall edX debuted its first seven courses. “Introduction to Solid State Chemistry” from MIT, “Introduction to Computer Science” from Harvard, “Introduction to Computer Science and Programming” from MIT and “Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research” from Harvard begin this month. “Software as a Service” from Berkeley, “Circuits and Electronics” from MIT and “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” from Berkeley started in September. The edX classes commence on a given date and run for a set period.

The courses involve homework, including in online laboratories and in some cases on projects.

People completing courses will receive certificates noting the university that provided the course. Initially, edX will provide certificates for free but it plans to charge a modest fee in the future.

So, if you yearn to learn, check out these sites. And remember their roster of courses, of course, is bound to grow.

MARK ROSENZWEIG, who always yearns to learn, is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at

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