Coursera co-founder talks impact of online courses

Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, gives a talk as a part of the Academic Innovation at Michigan series at the Michigan League on Thursday.

Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, gives a talk as a part of the Academic Innovation at Michigan series at the Michigan League on Thursday. Buy this photo
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Thursday, November 12, 2015 - 9:22pm

Technology continues to transform learning, both outside and inside the classroom, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller told a group of 50 at the Michigan League on Thursday.

Koller’s presentation, hosted by the Office of Digital Education and Innovation, discussed the impacts of Coursera, a platform for hosting the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered by a variety of universities.

The University was one of the first four colleges to run courses through Coursera, and has offered about 22 courses on the platform for more than 3.6 million users.

Koller, who is also a professor of computer science at Stanford University, began by describing the impacts of Coursera both on the universities that offer courses and the professors who teach them.

In particular, she emphasized how online courses encourage professors to alter and improve their teaching techniques to best serve their students, who have the option of walking away from an online site at any moment compared to the more captive audience of a classroom.

“It caused me to completely reshape the way I thought about teaching,” she said.  “And to think, ‘Why should the learner care?’ which is not a question I would ask myself before.”

As part of Coursera, instructors are given quantitative and qualitative feedback and are constantly able to improve their course. After negative feedback on a lesson, a professor is able to alter the lesson immediately rather than having to wait a semester, like with traditional college courses.

In an interview after the event, Information Prof. Charles Severance, who instructs a class on Coursera, said he often alters his teaching style for the online platform.

“When you’re on campus, we’re sort of in a hurry,” he said. “So online I always add a lot of extra stuff for the students. They really like it. For example, when they are learning programming, (we) show some video interviews of people like Daphne (Koller), and say, here, this is what a programmer has done with her career.”

Koller added that for colleges overall, especially those that were first on the platform like the University, hosting MOOCs broadens the institution’s reach.

“They’re reaching new audiences who are now aware of the quality of scholarship the University has to offer,” she said.

Koller also spoke to the benefits of teaching a more diverse population of students in MOOCs than in a traditional classroom. According to Coursera, more than 1 million students in 196 countries currently use the platform.

She gave an example of Diane Kleiner, a professor of art history at Yale University, who teaches a Roman Archaeology MOOC. While Kleiner was already well-traveled, she was able to learn even more about her field from pictures her international students sent her.

Koller also addressed the other side of the Coursera platform — the type of individuals who take the course. With MOOCs, she said, there are three different types of learners: college-focused learners, enrichment learners, and career-focused learners.

The college-focused learners, she said, take Coursera not as a substitute to college courses, but rather to prepare for a different level of education or to supplement a college course they are currently taking.

Engineering student Karen Lin, who attended the event, said she was an example of a college learner — as an international student from China, she took four Coursera courses in order to prepare for American college courses.

“The reason I took it was because I wanted to apply to (an) overseas school, but I didn’t have any experience in overseas classes,” Lin said. “I thought I would gain education experience in some U.S. institution.”

The majority of users, according to Koller, are the career-focused ones, who are largely 25 to 35 years old. MOOCs, she noted, especially help millennials who switch jobs early on in their career, a trend she said is growing.

“Think of marketing,” she said. “Most people, when they learned marketing a decade ago, learned all about how to post ads in newspapers. Now they don’t learn that. They learn how to post things on Twitter.”

Overall, Koller said, no matter the type of learner category they fall into, Coursera has made a large difference in many participants’ lives.

She cited, in particular, a Coursera user from Alabama, Scotty Rushing, who was poor and living out of his car. Taking MOOCs — including one of Severance’s— turned his life around.

Severance said for him, hearing Rushing’s story served as a reminder of how meaningful the courses can be.

“For the students, this is something very, very special,” he said. “With so little effort on our part, we can share this with so many people and affect so many of their lives.”