I am now enrolled in several free online courses from Udacity and Coursera. I take the CS101 course from Udacity, and Model Thinking, Design and Analysis of Algorithms from Coursera. You can read the background story about these courses, termed as Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on The New York Times (incidentally, this acronym reminds me of MMORPG, massive multiplayer online role playing game).
There are several things that attracted me to these online courses. First is curiosity of the subjects taught. I know some programming but it was largely self-taught. I am interested to learn computer programming in more structured way but taking a formal course in a university will be overkill for me (and I am not interested in getting the degree). Hence the CS101 and Design of Algorithm courses. I take Model Thinking because it seems interesting. The course taught several models applied to social science problems. I am only familiar with models in science and engineering subjects, so this modelling approach to social science is rather novel for me.
I am also interested to see how the course staff solve the problem of delivering lectures to a lot (in the order of tens of thousands) of students. Online video lectures are not new: several OpenCourseWare courses integrate videos, and then there is the Khan Academy. The main problem with these courses is interactivity. You generally cannot speak to or ask questions directly to the staff. Another problems are grading and evaluation. Because the students are so many, you have to automate the process. You cannot use essay writing to evaluate the student’s comprehension of the subject, for instance.
As it is, the courses try to solve the interactivity problem with the use of online forums. Problems will be discussed in those forums and often answered by the students themselves. The staff sometimes chime in and answer directly. More interesting questions are addressed by additional videos (“office hours”).
Grading is the harder problem: the automated systems are not yet perfect. There are complaints, which are usually addressed promptly (at least in the CS101 course). But it is clear that you can’t yet use them as evaluation systems in paid distance learning courses.