, Daphne Koller: What We’re Learning From Online Education

Daphne Koller, computer science professor at UC Berkeley, has opened herself up to a range of questions about her work and plans for the future.

Daphne Koller is the co-founder and CEO of Coursera, a nonprofit education company that offers massively open online courses in everything from law to music. And when I spoke with her about online education, it was clear she’s willing to talk about a subject most people shy away from. There’s something powerful about a spirited woman being honest about her story and why she wants you to think about this, and why you should.

She’s proud that Coursera goes after the problems that most online learning companies don’t, and what they offer is something more. It offers more time than traditional online classes. And it has an abundance of individualized instruction. From health to sciences to humanities and everything in between, Coursera has it covered.

Koller’s belief in online education is not tied to political beliefs. She doesn’t say publicly she agrees with or isn’t against Donald Trump, but if a question arises about his name and you ask her about the future of an online learning company or the merits of a “golden age” of education, it’s not because of political partisanship. It’s because she believes in education. She believes in having access to learning, opportunities and recognition. She believes in both the federal and state government-imposed funding for education. Education has been underfunded for decades and Koller knows that you can’t start over and try to grow online when much of the education in the United States is still rooted in a traditional model.

In the interview, Koller talks to me about figuring out a model for open online education that’s equal to the industry as well as answering questions that are coming up now in education, of which she answers everything:

Why is it important to include open education?

It’s really important that we have access to education and I think the potential of open education is huge. Because what we’re seeing is a lot of academic institutions and grad students are in different locations around the world, and we’re really not getting what we could get with open education and access. And so, this is why we’re building out the capabilities of open education.

How do you keep everyone together?

Education is a distributed model for today and we think the only way to get people onto learning platforms with access is to make it available to people around the world and that’s why we have made our platform available around the world, and we think what we do with the platform really opens the door to a lot of teachers and people to practice the disciplines that we’re a part of. We’ll have a class around the world for anywhere from zero to 300.

How do you attract people to online education?

To get students on our platform, you have to have a group of students and community who say, “Hey, we think education is important and it shouldn’t be in this niche space” and we have a group of about 30,000 people on our platform, so that’s great.

Do you think free online learning has any material benefits or penalties?

It’s great that they get away from the curriculum requirement and the motivation that we put on how to learn and perform well in high school or college because we’ll say at times, “Hey, is there a group that’s really interested in singing and it’s really hard? Let’s open up a class here on free online education.” You can keep that group together and that kind of balance is important for really meaningful learning because it’s harder for students to do that with homogenous content and with different shifts in distribution.

What’s the current demand for educational opportunities?

We think we’re going to be the leader in education. And so we want to create great courses, the quality and time that we have. And then we need great ways for students to find the courses.

Can you tell me what you think will be most important to education in the future?

Free online education is really important. If we can continue to get online education as good as the way we do community education, fine, I will be delighted. If education gets up there with education and when the real standards we have and levels of accessibility, and science and art, and education is really good, and everybody gets to realize it, then I think that would be a wonderful thing. But I think free online education is crucial for us to continue to be able to live our lives like anyone else.

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