RICHMOND — David Evans usually teaches about 50 students in one of his computer science classes at the University of Virginia. In February, he offered a free course on how to build a search engine, and 94,000 people signed up.
So many students would never fit in a lecture hall in Charlottesville, nor be allowed in without paying, but that’s no concern at Udacity, the digital university where Evans, an associate professor on leave from UVa, is teaching.
The idea, he said, is to make “high-quality higher education available to people who wouldn’t have the opportunity to come to UVa, and that’s the vast majority of the world.”
Online courses and distance education are not new, but Udacity and other educational experiments like it are using technology to address the issue of access and affordability in a new way. Ivy League universities are embracing the concept — known as MOOCs, for massive open online courses — and making courses available for free on the Web.
The prospect that holds for higher education was among the reasons cited by UVa’s governing board in its unsuccessful attempt last month to fire President Teresa A. Sullivan.
In explaining the board’s decision to seek Sullivan’s resignation, Rector Helen E. Dragas said higher education “is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.”
A successful experiment by Stanford University last fall led to the creation of a social entrepreneurship company called Coursera, which offers free access to courses from Stanford; Princeton University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; and the University of Pennsylvania.
Harvard University has formed a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called edX, a not-for-profit that will make courses available this fall.
Udacity grew out of the initial Stanford experiment, which proved so popular that one of the professors, Sebastian Thrun, decided not to return to a traditional classroom setting.
Thrun, a Google fellow who led the company’s self-driving car project, broke away and helped to establish Udacity as a for-profit startup. The courses are free to students, but the company charges a fee for testing to get certification and expects to make its profit from recruiters searching for skilled workers.
Evans said the company — whose name is derived from the word audacity — is focused now on developing courses, rather than bringing in revenue.
He designed one of Udacity’s first courses, Computer Science 101, which began in February. Of the 94,000 students who began the course, nearly 10,000 completed it during the two-month time frame that was then required.
The course was opened again in April and is running on a continuous model that allows students to work at their own pace, Evans said. About 75,000 people are enrolled, with 12,000 actively participating in a recent week.
Udacity has developed 11 courses, ranging from introductory physics and statistics to an advanced artificial intelligence class on programming a robotic car.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the online format can come closer to offering more one-on-one tutoring than a traditional setting, Evans said. Students get instant feedback through frequent quizzes, which are all graded automatically. Forums allow them to get individual help from other students and teaching assistants.
What Udacity offers is different from other online programs, he said. Classes are designed specifically for the medium, rather than an existing course that has been put online.
Udacity’s method succeeds because of the way it engages students, said Westley Weimer, a UVa associate professor who has taught one course for Udacity and will go to California next month to produce another.
“Making a course for Udacity was almost more like writing a movie script,” he said.
At UVa, he normally begins a computer science course “with a big, cool lecture,” he said, but that doesn’t work for Udacity. In the online format, he lectures and “doodles” as a way to catch students’ eyes.
“It’s almost like a screenplay — say this while drawing that,” he said.
And every few minutes, there’s a check to make sure the students understand what he’s saying.
Online courses allow students to watch the prerecorded class as often as necessary, and hyperlinks let them check out a term they might not have understood — advantages over regular classes, Weimer said.
But he can’t take a break and teach his students how to fence, as he likes to do at UVa.
“It’s not clear to me how certain topics would be covered online,” he said.
The MOOC approach works well for such subjects as engineering and computer science “where there are known right answers,” he said.
But for liberal arts courses that require a student to “analyze this book and write a compelling essay,” Weimer said, “it’s not immediately clear how you’re going to grade 30,000 submissions automatically.”
In the near future, universities could use MOOCs to alleviate crowding in some introductory subjects that are in heavy demand, he said. Students could be exempted from the courses if they pass exams given in secure sites.
But neither he nor Evans sees MOOCs as an imminent threat to bricks-and-mortar education.
“UVa has been doing quite a bit of soul-searching on this,” Weimer said.
In the wake of the board of visitors’ decision to reinstate her, Sullivan issued a challenge for proposals to blend online techniques into courses. Five instructors will each receive a $10,000 grant for hybrid courses for the fall semester.
“While massive open online courses — so-called MOOCs — may have some role in the efficient delivery of course content, what’s really important is the quality of teaching and learning,” Sullivan said in a statement announcing the contest.
Evans said UVa already has been a leader in online efforts, but he hopes new innovations are not met with negative reaction because they are “wrapped up in this board’s effort to replace President Sullivan in a very unfair and inappropriate way.”
The board’s panic that UVa may be falling behind “does not seem to be based on any reality,” he said.
“Smart universities,” he said, will look at online courses “in a fairly cautious way as an opportunity to enhance what they do on campus to extend reach and impact.”
Web-based education holds the prospect of cutting college costs and expanding access, but it involves more than just putting course content online, he said. Universities that misuse it as “a quick and easy fix” to their revenue challenges risk long-term damage to their reputations.
Evans said he does not agree with the board’s view of MOOCs as an “existential threat” to higher education.
“There’s no reason for any university, especially one like UVa that has so much to offer students on ground, to be panicked by the ability to deliver certain kinds of course content at very low cost,” he said.
» Take a preview of David Evans’ computer science class and learn about other Udacity courses at www.udacity.com.
» Coursera hosts classes in a broad range of disciplines from Princeton; Stanford; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; and the University of Pennsylvania. See www.coursera.org.
» edX will offer Harvard and MIT courses this fall at www.edxonline.org.
» Programs may offer certificates but not in the name of the Ivy League university offering the course.