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Coursera co-founder says educational revolution is here

INSIDE ILLINOIS, Nov. 15, 2012 | Mike Helenthal, News Editor | 217-333-5491  [Email | Share ]

Coursera co-founder and co-CEO Daphne Koller sounded more visionary than business manager during a keynote address Nov. 1 at the campus Online Education Summit.

Daphne Koller
Daphne Koller
| Photo provided by Stanford University

Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford University, was effusive in her contention that massive open online courses have the potential to change the balance of power for the world’s educational have-nots – and that universities such as the UI have an obligation to lead the way.

“It’s a real revolution in higher education,” she said, noting the incredible rate at which students have responded to Coursera’s initial course roster.

In just a year the number of Coursera users has risen to 6 million, with students from all over the world signing up for a host of free courses representing a wide variety of disciplines, she said. The UI currently offers 10 courses through Coursera, the most popular being Introduction to Sustainability.

“We hit a million (users) faster than Facebook, faster than Instagram,” she said.

Koller said the high numbers represent a fraction of the number of potential students unable to attend an institution of higher education because of high cost, geography, disability and a host of other access barriers.

“It’s not just about the numbers,” she said. “It’s about the individual people. People’s lives are being totally transformed.”

Koller said she had been in contact with a student from a war-torn area who had wondered whether he could obtain a scholarship to take the free course.

“I told him it was free – he just couldn’t believe it,” she said, adding the new student then asked if he was allowed to take two courses.

“It has a transformative effect,” she said.

Koller said one of the benefits of the Coursera platform is its malleability, with courses delivered at varying levels of student participation and technology and directed by course developers.

Despite the wide range of content delivery options, Koller said parameters such as start dates, modules, homework and deadlines, are consistently embedded in all of Coursera’s MOOCs to provide real-time course continuity and promote long-term student commitment.

She said video-based instruction allows students to control the pace of content delivery, which leads to a more personalized mode of learning. She said practice exercises are built into the delivery structure.

Because of the volume of students, an auto-grading function assesses short answer and even formulaic expressions to make the process easier for course managers. There also is a peer-grading function that Koller said has proved to be reliably accurate and can even be used to promote critical thinking in students.

In fact, the student interaction component may be the single greatest aspect of MOOCs as students continue to develop new study group and fact-checking protocol among themselves.

She said the self-help aspect is further magnified by the fact that 7,000 Coursera students are logged on at any given moment, making peer assistance no more than a few keystrokes away, 24-hours a day.

The average response time for receiving an answer is 22 minutes, with students who have already taken and passed the course many times volunteering to serve as volunteer community teaching assistants. So far, students have formed some 1,500 course-related communities.

Koller said the analytics function of Coursera has been a gold mine of student-behavior data – information that will be used to further refine courses and delivery options.

For example, a professor can track which questions students are struggling most to answer and which in-system sources (such as student assistance) they used to find the correct answer. The system also filters out redundant questions to professors, making it easier to cut through the clutter and assist more students.

Koller said the number of course model options is practically limitless.

“I think this is going to be a return to teaching the way it should have been,” she said, adding it also takes the pressure off students who want to explore varying course-topic options.

“Students can try things they don’t normally try,” she said, a trait that promotes exploration, but which also artificially deflates statistics tracking the number of students following a MOOC course to completion. Right now that number is about 10 percent.

She said Coursera plans to have a full university curriculum contingent developed within the next three to five years, though it will not offer degrees. Coursera will leave transfer/admissions and degree decisions to individual universities.

Coursera’s leaders continue to develop workable business models to sustain the company. So far, Koller said, three models have risen to the top: charging students for certification, offering targeted courses for corporations, or licensing content to institutions in a textbook form. She said Coursera leaders also are considering expanding course offerings in languages other than English.

All of the options would include a yet-to-be-developed revenue-sharing program with partner universities.

Faye Lesht, the interim director of the UI’s Office of Online and Continuing Education, said the summit’s planning committee was pleased with the turnout and depth of discussion at the event, and that having Koller there in person added layers to the discussion.

“It was an important opportunity for members of the campus community to explore together MOOCs, Coursera and ways this phenomenon can meaningfully contribute to the teaching/learning process,” she said. “The fact that Dr. Koller was able to attend in person and both present and field questions from participants contributed to the event’s success.”

Lesht said the university is uniquely positioned to capitalize on any benefits from the online education revolution now taking place.

“Illinois has been engaged in online education for many years and that strong foundation enabled campus to respond quickly to join Coursera and become the first land-grant institution to do so,” she said.

See related article on the Summit on Online Education.

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