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Coursera Inc., a startup that specializes in bringing free university classes to the Web, raised $16 million from venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates.
Founded by two Stanford University computer science professors, Coursera is partnering with that school, as well as Princeton University, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania to offer classes in disciplines including computer science, medicine, literature and history. Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr and NEA General Partner Scott Sandell are joining Coursera’s board of directors.
Started at Stanford last year by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, Coursera joins other new companies focused on free online education. Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford professor, co- founded Udacity Inc. to bring university-level courses online, while Codeacademy offers classes on computer programming. Koller and Ng are on a leave of absence from Stanford to turn Coursera from a project into a company, aimed at educating tens of millions of people globally in five years.
“Top universities today offer an amazing education to a tiny sliver of the population,” said Ng, whose research is focused on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Raising capital “allows us to focus for a while on building an exceptional platform without having to worry about revenue.”
Coursera’s first seven classes have had total enrollment of over 1 million people worldwide. Doerr said he knew about the program because he registered for Ng’s Machine Learning class, which was part of the first batch.
About 30 classes are scheduled to start through early 2013. They include a 12-week class titled, A History of the World Since 1300, offered by a Princeton professor, a six-week Computer Science 101 class from Stanford and a 4-5 week Fundamentals of Pharmacology class from Penn.
Coursera built the software using Amazon.com Inc.’s (AMZN) cloud- computing services. The technology includes video lectures in 10- to 15-minute clips, in-video quizzes, auto-grading software for instant feedback and a question-and-answer community that lets students help each other.
Company representatives aren’t discussing how Coursera plans to make money, though they said it intends to eventually share revenue with the professors and universities. Doerr, who previously invested in Google Inc. (GOOG) and Amazon.com, expects business opportunities to emerge based on the number of people flocking to the classes and the quality of instructors involved.
“The best faculty and the best professors want to do it,” said Doerr, whose venture firm is based in Menlo Park, California. “They can reach audiences of hundreds of thousands of people, which they will otherwise never get to in their lifetimes.”
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