What I Learned From Daphne Koller

A TED Talk posted earlier this month has created a bit of buzz.  Daphne Koller discussed what she had learned from forming Coursera and offering online courses free to thousands of people.

I recommend spending the 20 minutes to listen to Daphne.  Many of her points are not new, but she has framed them in new ways.

For instance, she starts by laying out the problems of higher education.  Costs have risen 559% since 1985.  Access is not guaranteed.  Completion of a degree does not necessarily guarantee a job.  She then quotes Tom Friedman‘s NY Times article “Come the Revolution” in which Friedman says:

“Welcome to the college education revolution. Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary. The costs of getting a college degree have been rising faster than those of health care, so the need to provide low-cost, quality higher education is more acute than ever. At the same time, in a knowledge economy, getting a higher-education degree is more vital than ever. And thanks to the spread of high-speed wireless technology, high-speed Internet, smartphones, Facebook, the cloud and tablet computers, the world has gone from connected to hyperconnected in just seven years. Finally, a generation that has grown up on these technologies is increasingly comfortable learning and interacting with professors through online platforms.”

Daphne describes Coursera as a service that allows students anywhere in the world to take the best courses from the best professors at the best universities for free.  She stated that Coursera had 640,000 students from 190 countries, who had viewed 14 million videos and taken 6 million quizzes (latest stats on the Coursera website is over a million students).  The courses were designed so that students could personalize their learning, engage with the content, and get automatically redirected if they strayed off subject.  She also noted that for the first time, they were in a position to collect data and make adjustments based on real learning rather than hypotheses.  Their courses had real content, real start and stop dates, real assessments, and real students.  Students were self-organizing in a variety of ways to study together.  Assessments were graded via peer and self-assessment, which she claimed could be incentivized to correlate very closely to what an instructor might have given as a grade.

She suggested that giving away these courses would not do away with universities…only with the large lecture classes.  Universities could then focus on building the critical thinking, service, and social skills for life that are part of growing up in a university.

As someone who has taught online for 17 years, I have to admit that I was both blown away and delighted by Daphne’s talk.  She and Andrew Ng have certainly opened up new avenues for higher education that are disruptive.  At the same time, now that Coursera has 16 universities, is there really a need for EVERY university to be launching massively open online courses or MOOCs?  Are large open enrollment online courses the only future for higher ed?

I think that there are some rich lessons that can be pulled from Daphne’s talk that apply to online teaching and learning in general…not just massive courses.  Many of these lessons are ones we have already incorporated into our Preparing to Teach Online course as well as our year-long Online Course Development Initiative.  These lessons have to do with personalization, communication, community, and engagement.

Daphne noted that when you are not constrained by four walls and the hour lecture, you are free to focus on the learning.  She showed how they used short, 8-12 minute mini-lectures tied to online engagement to drive learning.  While we do not have the resources of a Stanford, Harvard or MIT, we have consistently over the past two years suggested to faculty that they use software such as Camtasia, Jing, SnagIt, Screenr, or Echo360 to create short videos, and align those videos with activities in their online classes.  The use of short videos to answer questions as well as post mini-lectures moves one to a more personalized approach to learning.  Likewise – in ways tied to adult learning theory – designing the learning so that it uses discovery and allows for student-created content opens up the possibility of a more personalized approach to learning.

Daphne noted that, with 100,000 students, someone is always online, and that the median response time in the class question forum is 22 minutes.  I could never give that level of service in my online classes, but I do respond within a day, and more importantly, I encourage students to answer each others questions, achieving a level that is satisfactory to my students.  As we work with faculty, we stress the importance of clear and frequent communication.  This in my mind is as important in a class of 10 or 100 as a class of 100,000.

Daphne noted how students self-organized into study groups around the world…often in ways she might not have conceptualized.  For the past four years, we have designed our online training around a core concept that community is central.  A lesson suggested by Daphne is that we should not overthink “how” to form groups but rather – when we can – let groups form naturally.

Daphne ended by focusing on active learning.  As we stated in our white paper three years ago, teaching online involves new practice, and that practice requires active engagement with students (and active engagement by students with other students, their instructor, and the content).  Daphne has demonstrated how a lot of that engagement can be automated through digital technology.  I agree that this is something we need to do more…but we also need to create those connections between ourselves and our students – and I am still not sure how to connect to 100,000.

In some ways, the good things happening by engaged students in Coursera classes are the same good things happening by engaged students in our much smaller online classes.  In our much smaller online classes, we feel the need to create community and engagement, and to make every student successful.  A Coursera class can possibly take the Anderson Long Tail approach and celebrate only those students who persevere and complete the course through their own self-motivation.  What ever direction you believe, the example suggested by Daphne illustrates a significant change in how we conceptualize higher education.  The impact of that change on American colleges and universities has yet to be fully understood.

I would be interested in your thoughts?  How do you see Coursera impacting your program or institution? What changes (disruptive or otherwise) do you see on YOUR horizon?

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