Its students pay as much as HK$500,000 per year and often end up in the best paid jobs, but now Princeton University in the US has become the first educational institution to invite students from all over the world to take part via the internet in its most sought-after courses - free of charge.
More than 700,000 people around the globe signed up for a 12-week "experimental" course entitled History of the World Since 1300, which promised weekly video lectures, an online discussion forum and - gulp - several essays along the way. Uniquely, this experimental course shadowed an existing "proper" taught course at Princeton.
Was this an act of pure altruism or a public relations move to combat the regular charges of elitism directed at Ivy League colleges? In fact, it was neither, as I found out when I joined the course and got stuck in to 712 years of global history. It proved a lesson not only in the history of globalisation, but in the future of global education where knowledge is disseminated simultaneously in classrooms, lecture theatres, online forums and even in Google+ Hangouts.
"It was exhausting," says Professor Jeremy Adelman, who recorded hours of lectures every week for release each Sunday night on a new platform called Coursera coursera.org as well as dozens of seminars.
"There was lots of viewing of the lectures, medium usage of the discussion forums and about 3 per cent of the students actually submitted papers on a regular basis," he says, although the figures are still impressive. When the course closed, there were 93,072 total registered users, with 1.2 million views of the lectures, and 430,000 reading the forum discussions.
Not surprisingly, the six essays - which ranged from the conquest of the Americas to the cold war and globalisation - proved less popular. Although 5,600 essays were written, only 1,968 people submitted essays, all of which were evaluated by fellow students. Four of those essays were mine. "You're hard-core," says Adelman, though his motivation for the course wasn't just to engage the likes of me.
"I wanted to find a way for my students at Princeton to learn about the world with the world," he says. "Globalisation means different things to different people for different reasons, and I wanted the Princeton students to get a sense of that diversity of experience and voices around the history of the making of the world."
Adelman even tried seminars using Google Hangouts. "I tried two global classrooms, where I identified six Coursera and six Princeton students, and we had a Google Hangout," he says, lamenting that it's a far from perfect set-up.
"Google is banned in China, and in one case I had to pull in a Chinese student using Skype, which was really complicated," says Adelman, who also bemoans bandwidth fluctuations. "The power of the classroom was only as strong as the weakest link. If any of the users had bad connectivity it pulled the whole thing down, but the one thing all students had in common was Google - and Skype."
History of the World Since 1300 was one of the first major existing academic courses to be hosted on Coursera, one of many new platforms for online education. Others include edX edx.org the brainchild of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and Harvard University, and Udacity udacity.com
You only need to visit YouTube for thousands of sets of filmed lecture courses, but Coursera founder Andrew Ng warns against solely video-based courses.
"Videos by themselves don't make a complete course," says Ng. "Students learn best not by passively watching, but by practising with the material."
Coursera's 215 courses from 34 universities (including the University of London, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) range from introduction to philosophy and songwriting to organic chemistry and analytic combinatorics.
All of these platforms are donor-supported and not-for-profit, but they're mostly on a frantic search for a business model. The most obvious is by matching academically successful students with potential employers. "In December we launched Career Services, which matches students that opt-in with potential employers, for which we charge the employer a fee," says Ng. "We're working with companies of varying sizes, including Facebook, Twitter, AppDirect and TrialPay."
That highlights the problem with online courses and why some learners won't touch them: the lack of a qualification at completion.
This is destined to change. In January, Coursera began Signature Track, whereby students could pay a small fee to verify their identities while completing coursework, receiving in return a Verified Certificate issued by Coursera and the university that had taught the class. "Our projections are that over the next year, the Signature Track will be Coursera's largest source of revenue," explains Ng.
My experience suggests that it's worth paying for, albeit only if they're bona fide courses lead by renowned educators. "What you took was a real Princeton course, but online," says Adelman of his History of the World Since 1300, adding that the Coursera experiment cost the university US$100,000. "It's not sustainable. At some point they're going to have to figure out how to inject resources."
Forget global history. Having an idea that can change the world, and then figuring out a business model, seems an excellent summary of our era of instant globalisation.