By Stephen Smith
In the fall of 2011, three Stanford University computer science professors tried an experiment. They threw their classrooms open to everyone in the world. With just a few emails and tweets, they offered free, online courses that anyone, anywhere could join. The classes went viral. More than 160,000 people signed up just for Professor Sebastian Thrun's artificial intelligence class. About 23,000 stayed with Thrun through the end of the semester and got a completion certificate.
"Which means we taught more students artificial intelligence than all the professors in the world combined," Thrun says with a mix of pride and wonder.
What followed has been described as a revolutionary moment in the history of higher education. Thrun left Stanford to start a free online college called Udacity. In a separate move, Stanford joined forces with a number of America's other leading colleges and universities to offer many of their courses -- with lectures, discussion groups, quizzes and tests -- free to anyone with an Internet connection. More than a million people have already signed up.
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