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Teaching the World: Daphne Koller and Coursera

Charles Severance, University of Michigan

Pages: pp. 8-9

Abstract—The increasing interest in moving forward from the simple sharing of course materials to develop a more course-like online experience represents the next step toward realizing the vision for open education.

The MIT OpenCourseWare (, now more than 10 years old, laid the foundation for widely sharing course materials developed across higher education. In the past few years, there has been increasing interest in moving from the simple sharing of course materials by forming a cohort of learners and mentors around open materials to develop a more course-like online experience.

In 2007, David Wiley of Utah State University pioneered the idea of opening an on-campus course to remote participants around the world. George Siemens of Athabasca University, Stephen Downes at the National Research Council of Canada, Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island, and others have expanded the range of these increasingly larger and more innovative open courses.

Initial Efforts

In Fall 2011, Stanford University opened three computer science courses—Databases, Machine Learning, and Introduction to Artificial Intelligence—to any student with an interest in the material.

I recently spoke with Daphne Koller, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford and a cofounder of Coursera, an online education platform, about these courses. You can view the full interview at

According to Koller, the decision to open the courses to wide participation was done late in the summer before the fall semester started:

Trying out these classes in this format was kind of a last-minute decision. I don't think anyone [on our team] anticipated the extent to which this would take off and have this huge impact and uptake around the world. In August, we realized that the platforms we had been using inside Stanford were just not up to the task of being available robustly to tens of thousands of students, let alone hundreds of thousands. So we started to build up a platform from scratch using a group of graduate students and three undergraduates. They were unbelievably talented individuals who ended up also being the core group that would form the engineering team of Coursera.

Each of the three courses had an online enrollment of more than 100,000 students. The high level of interest for this type of open distributed learning experience led to the formation of the Udacity and Coursera companies as well as the MIT and Harvard edX project.

Koller founded Coursera along with Andrew Ng, also a Stanford computer science professor, who initially had been approaching scalable education from a different perspective. As Koller recalls,

For me, this project started about four years ago, when a group of award-winning faculty were invited by John Bravman, who was then the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford, to talk about how to open up more room in the curriculum for meaningful engagement between faculty and students. Then two months later, I was at a Google faculty summit listening to a talk about YouTube, and all of a sudden it came to me that instead of delivering the same lecture I had been giving for 15 years, telling the same jokes at the same time, maybe we could flip the classroom: record my lectures, with interactive quizzes, and make them available to students in a format that is much more engaging than a traditional lecture-format class. With the students watching the lectures online, it frees up the classroom time for more meaningful interaction me between me and my students.
In parallel to that, my colleague and Coursera cofounder, Andrew Ng, was working on a different trajectory, which is "let's teach the world," and ended up developing pieces of the design, technology, and pedagogy independently in the context of this other project. At some point, we realized that the two projects were remarkably well-aligned because the same ideas, the same designs, the same content could be used for both improving the quality of the instruction for our on-campus students and for offering a meaningful course experience to the world.

Once they formed Coursera, Koller and Ng quickly went about approaching other universities to become partners in producing content. As Koller describes,

It seemed clear that for this to have the largest impact it could possibly have in terms of teaching all these people around the world who would never have access to this kind of high-quality education, we needed to make this available not just to Stanford but to a number of top institutions that could offer their great content to all these people. That is when we decided to spin this out of Stanford and build up this platform that would provide this experience for students as well as a good experience for faculty to effectively author these large online classes that are open to the world.

Course Design

Teaching courses to student cohorts ranging from tens of thousands to more than 100,000 affects the pedagogy and design of the courses as well as the technology to support them. The backbone of the courses is video lectures that are less than 15 minutes long. These lectures have embedded assessments to help students gauge their learning. Because it's not practical to hand-grade assignments for these large course sizes, automatic or peer grading technologies have been developed to make grading tractable. One advantage of the automatic grading is that students get immediate feedback to inform their learning.

Getting student questions answered in such a large course is another challenge that requires a fresh approach. According to Koller,

We built in the opportunity for students to interact with each other in meaningful ways and have one student help another through the hard bits so they could work together to achieve a better outcome for everyone. There was a real community built up where students felt incredibly motivated to help each other and answer each other's questions to the point that in the Fall quarter of 2011, the median response time for a question posted on the forum was 22 minutes. Because there was such a broad worldwide community of students all working together, even if someone was working at 3:00 a.m., chances are that somewhere around the world, there would be somebody else who was awake and thinking about the same problem.

Students also formed study groups based on geographic proximity or areas of interest:

They would say, "We have a study group in London, who wants to join?"… different types of groupings formed depending on geography or language or other characteristics they might have in common. This was really a fun thing for the students, and some of them met physically—those that who had geographical proximity—and others just communicated in the virtual space.

Remaining Challenges

It is interesting that the leadership of Coursera, Udacity, and edX are all computer science researchers, perhaps pointing to the fact that a large part of the challenges in building new technologies to support teaching and learning at scale require truly innovative solutions. The early efforts can be greatly improved, and many technical and pedagogical problems remain to be solved.

Even with the challenges that we still encounter in teaching at scale, it appears that we have taken the next step toward a vision for open education. According to Koller,

Our dream is that anyone around the world who has an Internet connection, perhaps via a mobile device, will be able to learn the things they care about. Some things they learn will be pragmatic and will help them get a better job and make more money so they can support their family. But some of the things they learn will just be ways to expand their understanding and imagination by learning amazing things they didn't know about.

In a sense, the experience that began at Stanford in the fall of 2011 has put the idea of providing open and scalable educational experiences into our collective conscience. It will be interesting to see how far we progress down this path in the next few years.

About the Authors

Charles Severance, Computing Conversations column editor and Computer's multimedia editor, is a clinical associate professor and teaches in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. Severance is also a Coursera instructor. You can follow him on Twitter @drchuck or contact him at
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