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Stanford's Next Lesson: Free Online Courses For Credit And Degrees?

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As Stanford, Harvard and other top American universities digitize more courses for free public consumption, will students one day be able to get an actual degree online from these institutions without having to pay for it?

John Hennessy, president of Stanford University, says his school "can see moving in that direction."

Currently, Stanford offers online courses on subjects such as cryptography and human-computer interaction — all free, but without credit. (Students do get a "certificate of completion" signed by the instructor for successfully completing the coursework.)

One major challenge to offering actual credit, according to Hennessy, will be how to assess the performance of a degree-seeking student in an online course.

"The requirement to assess student performance is significantly higher than it is if you're offering students the opportunity to be exposed to a course and do their own assessment," Hennessy tells All Things Considered's Robert Siegel. "And that's going to demand, at least for the foreseeable future, significantly more effort on behalf of faculty and support staff in order to ensure that students have really mastered the material."

Hennessy says Stanford's online course program is "still very much in the infancy [stage]" and the university's small seminars and more interactive courses are difficult to duplicate digitally. But he says the new program is meeting the needs of some students.

"I think we'll be serving, at least initially, a community for whom coming to Stanford is probably not practical," Hennessy says.

As you can hear in the above audio of the full interview, Stanford's president also speaks about how the school, well-known as an incubator for successful Silicon Valley startups, tries to balance against an overemphasis of career-focused tracks for students, as well as his concerns about declining financial support for public universities.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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