Coursera: Changing Education in a Positive Way

If you haven”t seen Dr. Daphne Koller“s TED talk, it is worth the twenty minutes. A professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and MacArthur Fellowship winner, Koller co-founded Coursera, a “social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.” Last spring, as one of the first Coursera instructors, Koller taught “Probabilistic Graphical Models” to 44,000 students.

In her TED talk, Koller demonstrates that Coursera increases access to high-quality instruction around the globe, and raises interesting questions about the future of education. Some view Coursera as a threat to traditional academia (see ), but I am not convinced.

First, it seems that most Coursera users are not traditional students — they are adults interested in continuing their education or individuals unable to attend traditional universities — and when Coursera is used in a traditional setting, it is by instructors as a supplement to their face-to-face lectures.

Second, the ways in which Coursera-like platforms might change academia do not strike me as negative. If a student earns online certificates in place of general education courses (which are often large lecture classes anyway), then “college” can become a place of specialization and focus, where students study a specific subject for two years with a small cohort. This is already the structure of upper-division courses, and it reduces the time and money students have to commit. Instead of dispossessing instructors, this structure would enable faculty to nurture a few dozen students each year instead of a few hundred.


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