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With most new markets comes competition, as is the case with online education. Today, there are four major platforms that produce content specifically for online instruction: Coursera, Udacity, and edX, which provide university-level content, and Khan Academy, which largely targets K-12 education. While they all offer content designed specifically for web-based instruction, they differ slightly in missions, delivery, and focus.

KHAN ACADEMY

Khan Academy is an educational nonprofit founded in September 2008 by Salman A. Khan ’98. According to its website, its mission is to “change education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”

Khan conceived the idea after making a website to help tutor his niece in 2004, and two years later he would post the first public video. The website has since grown to contain over 3,300 videos, most of which were made by Khan himself. There are also over 400 million interactive problems, grouped loosely into 47 “courses,” ranging from addition to linear algebra and macroeconomics. Khan Academy receives over six million unique users each month, has around 380,000 YouTube subscribers, and has had 179 million video views so far. The organization is supported by donors such as Google Inc. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Most of the videos, which tend to be around 10–15 minutes long, are on YouTube, with the exception of the Computer Science section, which contains integrated coding.

The instruction is oriented toward the casual learner as a supplement to traditional classroom learning. The videos have practice problems with hints and solutions, and there are no “exams” like in edX or Udacity. Users can earn badges based on their time spent on the site and how many assignments they have completed. Students have individual profiles, which allows teachers, coaches, and the students themselves to view summarized performance and achievement data. There are also forums that foster collaboration between students.

UDACITY

Udacity is an organization founded in 2011 by Stanford researchers David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky, and Google VP and former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, with the goal of “democratizing” education.

The idea began last year when Thrun, then a Stanford professor, offered his artificial intelligence class online so it could reach a broader audience. This audience would grow to over 160,000 students from 190 countries who enrolled in what would become Udacity’s first class.

The organization, which is funded by Charles River Ventures and $300,000 of Thrun’s own money, will offer 14 STEM courses this fall in topics including algorithms, building a web browser, and cryptography. It currently has around 112,000 “active” students and instructors, with 739,000 total registrants. Instruction is offered in the form of free courses consisting of short, close-captioned video lectures by university professors, supplemented by quizzes and homework. Students can enroll in a course anytime after its launch, and all course content can be completed at the student’s pace.

Udacity has a unique system of certifications. Upon completion of a course, students received a certificate of achievement signed by the instructor, with levels ranging from “Completion” to “Accomplishment with Highest Distinction.” In some courses, students can pay a fee — currently $89 for CS101 ­— to take a proctored exam at one of 4,500 testing centers to receive a certificate that can allow the student to “receive credit from employers, universities, and schools,” according to an August post on the Udacity blog. There are also secure, online examinations planned for the future.

Additionally, according to its FAQ page, Udacity also partners with over 20 technology companies, with the aim of introducing students to potential employers.

COURSERA

Coursera was also founded by Stanford affiliates, computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, and is “committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it,” according to its website. It is a for-profit company, though it currently does not generate any revenue.

Coursera was launched shortly after Udacity, and offers courses from 16 universities, including Stanford, Princeton, and Caltech, but also universities in Scotland, India, Canada, and Switzerland. The courses contain video lectures by university professors, often weekly, and offer interactive exercises, quizzes and peer-graded essays to reinforce knowledge, helping students to “master the material.”

The company, which currently has a team of 20 people, is funded by several venture capital firms and investments from Caltech and the University of Pennsylvania, both partner institutions. Over 100 courses will be offered in Fall 2012, and the University of Washington will provide credit for its courses, which will feature enhanced communication with the instructor and monitored exams. There will also be a fee for the certificates of for-credit courses, according to an article by The Seattle Times. Coursera currently has around 680,000 students, mostly outside the U.S. Its courses are free, but backer John Doerr stated in a Times article that “learners should ‘opt in’ for valuable, premium services,” which will generate revenue for the company.

edX

EdX, unlike the other organizations, is a venture spearheaded by universities themselves — not individual entrepreneurs and professors — and was conceived as a platform to provide an MIT-calibre education to anyone who wants it. EdX, announced in May, grew out of the MITx initiative — the brainchild of MIT President L. Rafael Reif (then MIT’s provost) and Professor Anant Agarwal. It was branded as an open platform that other universities could join and leverage for their own residential education purposes. Since its inception, the University of California, Berkeley has become a part of the venture. Each member institution labels edX courses under their own names, e.g. HarvardX, BerkeleyX, and MITx, and all three will be offering courses this fall. 6.002x, a circuits and electronics course offered by MIT and taught by Agarwal, was MITx’s first prototype course and has already seen its first class graduate. Over 150,000 users from around the world signed up, and slightly over 7,000 passed the course and earned a certificate. EdX is financed mostly by its member institutions — Harvard and MIT have committed $30 million each so far. Courses and certifications are currently free, but edX has plans to begin charging for more robust types of certification in the future. In any case, edX officials have said the course content will be free to users who just want to browse. Like its competitors, edX may eventually seek revenue through partnerships with private employers, connecting high-performing and certified students to suitable jobs.