Section 2: Disruption in Process:
Daphne Koller, Coursera: Education in the 21st Century
Daphne Koller, Coursera
An educational technology company, Coursera offers massive open online courses by working with universities to make some of their courses available on the web. Coursera covers physics, engineering, humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science and other subjects; its competitors include edX and Udacity.
How does Coursera work?
Coursera currently partners with 119 of the world’s top universities.They create courses that are full-learning experiences – not just video, but also exercises, assessments, open-ended projects as well as the ability to interact with other learners. We provide a platform that allows them to host and distribute those courses to currently nearly 13 million learners worldwide. We currently offer approximately 1,000 courses.
What is the need that Coursera is addressing, and how do you see that evolving?
Coursera addresses the need for high-quality, universal education access for learners coming from all academic backgrounds, including traditional students, career-minded professionals and general-enrichment learners.
That need is growing because the number of professions requiring additional education beyond high school, and even at college level, is only growing. Furthermore, the world is moving much more rapidly than at any previous time in history. So many of the skills people need in their careers or lives may not even have existed when they went to college 15 or 20 years ago. Therefore, there needs to be new mechanisms for us to acquire so-called booster shots of education over the course of our lives, and to integrate education much more directly into the fabric of our lives. This is something that will only grow in value.
At the same time, we are also seeing that the need for college education is growing rapidly while in many parts of the world, especially in emerging economies, the availability of high-quality education is very limited because the human capital needed to teach is not growing at a sufficiently rapid pace. Giving people access to the kind of quality content that our partners are able to provide is really important for these uses.
What distinguishes this version of online education from its previous incarnations?
There have been many previous attempts to create online education, but there are three things that make Coursera different and more impactful. The first is the ability to significantly reduce costs on factors such as bandwidth, which allows us to provide a “freemium” experience rather than a paid-for-use model. This really changes the potential impact and uptake of the platform, and that is critical to our success. We are now providing a very different feedback loop and incentive structure for instructors and universities, compared to paid-for models which focus on revenue rather than scale. Coursera is comparatively a self-rewarding experience for instructors.
Secondly, but related, this approach has allowed us to reach a scale that paid-for platforms never could. Our courses attract 20,000 or even 50,000 people, rather than 500. This creates another attraction for the instructor, and also makes us different.
Finally, we have been able to provide a scalable education model without sacrificing the human-to-human element and the experiential work that comes from a meaningful education experience, which makes education interesting. It’s not just videos and multiple-choice quizzes. Coursera creates a community of people who can do open-ended work that can be assessed and provided with feedback from other users. This makes Coursera a really engaging experience for other users, as opposed to many other attempts.
There are so many ways in which education is a great democratizer, and giving people access to that opportunity can fundamentally change the nature of society.
What do you foresee as the impact of millions of people in developing countries coming online for the first time and being able to access Coursera’s educational content?
I think that is a tremendous opportunity for them, and for the countries that they live in. There are so many ways in which education is a great democratizer, and giving people access to that opportunity can fundamentally change the nature of society. If you look at the list of problems that plague emerging economies – poverty, unemployment, hunger, overpopulation, extremism, HIV/AIDS – education can lower the incidence of these problems. So there is a huge opportunity for the world by increasing access to education.
Coursera partners with existing educational institutions, and so, in a sense, it is a closed rather than an open platform. What are some of the benefits and downsides of that approach?
We recognize that there are great educators everywhere. No doubt, there are people who aren’t even employed by an educational institution who could provide an excellent course. However, they are very difficult to identify, and the necessary curation process is challenging if we aren’t domain experts. An individual can say they can teach an excellent course in Greek philosophy, for example, but how would we evaluate that statement?
One of the advantages of our partnership model is that the top academic institutions have a track record of hiring amazing scholars in a variety of disciplines and training them to convey their ideas effectively to students, which is exactly what teaching is all about. For us, this is a quality-control mechanism as well as a source of leverage to be able to work with these top institutions.
The other component is that our revenue model right now is based on optional credentialing. Users can sign up to get course certificates that can then serve them well in employment and academic opportunities. The brand of some of the top institutions is a significant part of the value proposition offered to learners. Whereas if non-professional instructors were to teach a course of Greek philosophy, even a great course, how could the market evaluate that and ascribe the appropriate value to the credential?
These are all factors that have made it easier to start this way, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t great education to be had elsewhere. However, it is a very reasonable starting place.
How do you envision Coursera 10 years from now, and how will it evolve to fit with broader technology trends?
We currently offer approximately 700 courses. That may seem like a lot, but the average academic institution actually has 3,000-5,000 courses, so clearly there is room for growth. I would hope that in the next 10 years we will have 5,000 courses in multiple languages, in localized development contexts, so we will be able to teach anyone, anywhere, anything they want to learn. Additionally, we envision the credentials that are associated with these courses to be recognized as a key path to professional development for working adults.
Mobile is clearly a global trend that is impacting every technology company and we are very cognizant of that, which is why we launched an iOS app in December, an Android app in March and, most recently, a Kindle Fire app. We are directing a lot of our development energy towards making the mobile experience as high-quality and self-contained as possible.
Why do you think it took a start-up to build this platform, versus an established university launching a platform similar to yours?
First of all, it was important to move out of the shadow of a single academic institution, because one of the things that enables us to have high impact is that we are a hub for the content of multiple institutions that provide very unique and complementary types of content. If you are providing content from a single academic institution, you are inherently partial in your coverage. Coursera is an essential step towards a real platform rather than a content provider, and that’s what gives us a powerful, transformative influence on the space.
How do you ensure quality on the platform?
There are two aspects of quality control. Firstly, on the content that is provided by our instructors and institutions, and then, there is quality control on our learner interactions.
In terms of the content, we have quality-control protocols that require that a certain amount of content is posted before the start of a course. We review that content and ensure that it has the right form and pedagogy. Additionally, institutions have such a strong brand and reputation to maintain, which extends to a strong incentive for them to maintain quality online, and this has worked very effectively as a quality-control mechanism.
On the learner side, we have been quite lucky so far because Coursera attracts a special population: people who are committed to a quality education experience and want to learn. There is also very strong self-policing where users criticize inappropriate behaviour by other users, and this can be brought to the instructors’ attention. This means that we haven’t had much conflict, even in controversial disciplines. For example, we’ve had courses on abortion, we’ve had courses on mental health, and a course on Islamic law in the Western world. All of these are controversial topics, but the interactions have been largely positive and constructive.
Will quality control be a challenge to Coursera’s future scaling?
One of the factors we have been able to leverage is the local resources at the academic institutions that we work with. So a lot of what we do in onboarding new partners involves working with the local programme managers to ensure that they know what good pedagogy looks like and how to manage the platform. They then serve as a multiplier for us, which is beneficial for scaling. I think that is another benefit of working with academic institutions rather than individual instructors.
Are there any regulatory issues that you experience – for example, in terms of accreditation?
We have not focused on the problem of accreditation, nor do we develop content that we would seek to be accredited. Rather, we are a platform that helps our partners reach new users, who generally aren’t degree-seeking.
A policy issue we’d like regulators to acknowledge is that we aren’t aiming to operate in the accreditation space, and so they shouldn’t seek to apply the same complex regulations here. Imposing those rules here will make it very difficult for us to provide the free higher-education quality experience.