Daphne Koller is co-founder of Coursera, where you can try for free the courses of Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Oxford University, and dozens of others. Here she talks about going around the world to build the machine learning startup that’s helping to transform education.
Daphne Koller’s Ted Talk “what We’re Learning From Online Education”
On April 21, 2011, Daphne Koller’s professor Matthew VanDyke requested Daphne and her lab to measure the influence of digital books and others on memorization by 1,800 ninth-grade students. That summer, at the University of California Berkeley, they delved into the research and began recruiting students for a follow-up study of the impact of online course material on student retention, achievement, and morale.
Since then, the Koller Lab has pioneered a strategy known as “flipped learning,” which shifts toward a system that emphasizes focus on mastery over completing course material. Using the online educational platform Udacity, the researchers tracked the progress of more than 29,000 students, ages 16 to 24, who took six online classes to develop skills in language arts, math, and a science or engineering course.
Daphne and her students began by introducing students to online courses via a form-letter postcard called an “incubator” to prompt students to sign up for classes on Udacity. At first, “we got students who would put in their first question and think, ‘Oh, these aren’t for me,'” Koller remembers. But gradually, her team would find that students who were willing to take risks and explore the online courses were those who consistently improved.
The findings of the study demonstrated that when students enrolled in a course through Udacity, they took the training they received online and incorporated it into their classroom learning. In this way, course material was reflected on their own work, and the subject matter learned in the online courses was used in real classes later. “In an online setting, it’s all about the system, not the text,” says Koller. “In the old-fashioned world, it’s only the text. So, we began to treat the student as the model, the producer of knowledge.”
Daphne and Matt are among several educational researchers who believe that online learning should teach students to use the information they learn, not the process of knowing it. The academic journal SSRN recently published a model on how to effectively deliver online learning. Another study notes that it is easier for students to master the material when they know they are not testing it. “It means nothing new, no lesson plan is missing, there’s nothing you can’t do,” observes Daphne. “It’s just a different technique to move students to mastering whatever information they are learning.”
For many educators, such lessons are perfect to make sure students acquire the foundational skills that they can test later, but too often, “they are written and delivered in ways that aren’t always engaging, don’t really drive home the critical thinking,” adds Koller. In her opinion, “a lot of online courses try to use online technology in a traditional manner. And that’s fine, in and of itself, but that’s not what we’re there for.”
At Udacity, Koller’s team selected six students whose scores were low, because they believed that they would not do well in a traditional lecture, so they chose an online course, including many reminders to study. Since most traditional online courses can take weeks or months to complete, students need to complete a certain number of courses or drop out.
After six weeks, half of the student group was dropped, and the others were allowed to complete one course more. Using a new technique developed by her team, Koller tracked students through each one. “We had a calculator that we put in front of the students,” she recalls. “And when you got a specific number of questions right or wrong, we showed you the result. Then, when they finished the course, we asked them what they needed to improve their scores.”
Using that method, Daphne was able to know what students needed to do to keep getting good scores. What she found was that students would start off doing well in their first online course, but after two weeks, their scores would start dropping. The low performers would have trouble keeping up, but the high performers would improve as they met the more difficult challenges. “When you look at them a couple of months after they finished the course, we see that the low performers have almost completely recovered the scores they lost,” says Koller.
To make online courses more engaging, Koller and her team adapted a technique used by teachers who ask students to think about the consequences of action they would take at home. In this approach, students think about their choices the way their parents think about them when they are preparing them for choosing a career. One teacher applied this technique to a third-grade teacher who wanted her students to know that choosing a career meant choosing a career. In that scenario, students were asked to imagine what their parents would say to them if they made the wrong career choice. The teachers used this technique