During a recent cab ride from the San Francisco airport, the
cabbie gave me an earful about her latest passion: the history and even an
accounting class she was taking on Coursera. And when I took a recent peek at the class list, I swooned a
bit too: Song writing and jazz improvisation with legends from the Berkelee School of
Music. Sign me up.
The competitive nature of our economy--exacerbated by the
recent crushing downturn--has made much of education a march to certifications
and credentials. Exactly what the implications of MOOC--massive online
courses--will be long-term is still anybody's guess: Plenty of universities,
colleges and professor worry that making education free will endanger their
institutions and even livelihoods.
Others believe the MOOCs are a much-needed course correction
to the escalating costs associated with higher education. The National Center for
Education Statistics calculates that between 2000–01 and 2010–11, prices
for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 42%;
statisticians at Bloomberg News Service figure that college costs have gone up a
mind-blowing 1,120% over the past 35 years.
Whatever the future holds, however, there's no question that
people are drawn to these classes:
Recently Coursera announced that it would start offering
professional development programs for teachers: A class on the Foundations of Teaching for
Learning 1: Introduction (which starts August 5) has drawn more than 18,000
registrations; a parallel class, First
Year Teaching (Elementary Grades) - Success from the Start (debuting August
6) has more than 10,000 enrolled. For now there is no official credential associated
with these--just a "statement of accomplishment" and the clear desire
that people have to learn more.
Daphne Koller, cofounder of Coursera, spoke recently with me on the company's directions. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
EdSurge: What are future
directions for your platform?
Koller: Our first mobile developer showed up today! We're also very
interested in the international market--in translation and localization. We
are, though an app platform: we want to define a rich ecosystem for student to
collaborate, do simulations and exploit a whole range of cool and interesting
applications. We don't have the bandwidth to develop all those by ourselves. We
will have a shared data model with well-defined APIs. And yes, I'd expect like
any app platform, there will be shared revenue. Not because that's our revenue
model but because we think it will lead to a better experience for users.
What's surprised you
about how Coursera is evolving?
The uptake on peer grading was a surprise. We knew peer
grading was important in the humanities, where the most interesting assignments
can't be graded by a machine. But then we saw how commonly it became used in a
whole range of courses. People
like to be graded by people. [That
means a new priority] is supporting group work. We want to create groups within
the platform and support more social learning pieces.
How is Coursera
We've already announced a signature track that does
verification based on keystrokes. That's one level of academic integrity:You
are not giving a certificate to Donald duck. That's important aspect of
maintaining the value of the university brand that goes on the certificate. For
more high stakes investment, we're using standard methodology such as… remote
proctoring of exams. That's currently the norm. We're just co-opting that
And you make money by
There are many ways we can make money on value-added
services on top of the signature track. [For instance we can do] tutoring and
things that have a higher touch. There are a lot of opportunities for
institutional use of our content, too. Universities see the amazing courses we have. We share
revenue with the schools and professors who develop those courses.
How does quality
control of those courses happen?
We have amazing people who really care about helping
instructors teach better. By and large, our courses are great and the
universities produce strong quality control. The nice thing is the instructors
get so much visibility in what works and what doesn't from the analytics we can
pull off the platform. And the comments that students post on the discussion
forums. It helps them rethink their class sometimes.
Does it matter if
Coursera is a for-profit or nonprofit?
The notion of
for profit and nonprofit is a red herring. If you're not charging for content
but you're living off of some way of monetizing [the interactions or what
happens on your platform], it doesn't matter what your tax status is. There's a
technical question of whether open source or an API-based platform is a better
platform for creating a rich ecosystem for people. There are a large number of
examples where API platforms are more usable and [perhaps] better maintained.
That may be because it's not just adhoc group of developers but a single team that's
making the platform functional and easy to plug into.
There are plenty of
critiques of MOOCs, too, such as the Udacity's tangle at San Jose State.
As you embark on a new endeavor and try out different
things, there are some experiments that work out well and some that you'll need
to rethink and redefine. So declaring failure after an experiment is premature
and a symptom of the hyperbolic nature of the coverage of MOOCs. In both
directions. In the same way that a single successful experiment wouldn't indicate that we won the war, there is no
single indication that we've lost it. We're on a very long road of
transformation of education after 400 or 500 years without change.