You Can Now Take Harvard’s Most Popular Class for Free

How massive open online courses are democratizing higher education

Technically speaking, David Malan (above) is a college professor. But in the world of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, he’s a rock star. CS50, the overwhelmingly popular introductory computer science class he teaches at both Harvard and Yale, has had over a million online registrants since 2012, when a version was made available on major MOOC provider edX.

In addition to the overflowing audiences for his lectures—CS50 is both institutions’ most in-demand course—Malan, 40, teaches students digitally in India and Brazil, among other countries, with more logging on every day. As of last year, the course is available not just on video but in virtual reality as well, giving edX registrants a seat in Harvard’s Sanders theater. The course owes its success to two factors: programming’s emergence as a crucial skill set in the economy of the future and Malan’s natural showmanship. Onstage, usually in a black tee and black jeans, Malan speaks quickly and concisely, often employing props, and with all the measured swagger of a Tony Robbins. (Guest lectures from the likes of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—who took CS50 before dropping out of Harvard—are an added draw.)

According to Malan, MOOCs are changing the architecture of courses. “It’s not enough to take a traditional class structure, put it online, and call it revolutionary,” he says. “You really need to rethink what you’re doing with those resources.” Today, there are nearly 7,000 MOOCs offered worldwide—Coursera, Udacity, and edX are three major platforms—reaching around 58 million minds. Some courses are subscription-based, but others, like CS50, are free. Traditional start and end dates are obsolete; learners can jump in anywhere, anytime. Everything is archived, providing no excuse for students to miss a class. Didn’t quite get something? Just rewind. “There are just so many barriers that might stand in the way for a student learning this material,” Malan says. “Technologically, we’re so fortunate that that need not be the case anymore.”