Koller's Course(ra) Ahead

column | MOOCs

Koller's Course(ra) Ahead

Daphne Koller, cofounder of Coursera, shares her perspective on what's ahead for the world's biggest MOOC

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Jul 30, 2013

Koller's Course(ra) Ahead

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 handling credentialling?

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 technology.

And you make money by issuing credentials?

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.

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