Education as a basic human right

April 04, 2013

Free online edu­ca­tion can change the world, according to Daphne Koller, citing its poten­tial to pro­mote peace and solve global chal­lenges such as unem­ploy­ment, poverty, and AIDS.‬

‪”The more edu­cated people are, the less these prob­lems exist,” explained Koller, the co-​​founder of Coursera, a leading plat­form for Mas­sive Open Online Courses. “There is a real oppor­tu­nity to take the kind of edu­ca­tion that’s avail­able to the priv­i­leged few and turn it into a basic human right.”‬

‪Koller dis­cussed the online edu­ca­tion rev­o­lu­tion with more than 200 stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff who filled the Raytheon Amphithe­ater on Wednesday evening for the sixth install­ment in the “Pro­files in Inno­va­tion” Pres­i­den­tial Speakers Series. Sev­eral hun­dred people also watched the event live via Northeastern’s Face­book page.‬

‪North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun hosted the event, which is designed to bring the world’s most cre­ative minds to campus for con­ver­sa­tions on inno­va­tion and entrepreneurship.‬

‪Koller fits the mold. A pio­neer in the fields of machine learning and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, she is the Rajeev Mot­wani Pro­fessor in the Com­puter Sci­ence Depart­ment at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity. Her myriad awards and achieve­ments include the Inter­na­tional Joint Con­fer­ences on Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Com­puter and Thought Award in 2001; a MacArthur Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship in 2004; and the Asso­ci­a­tion for Com­puting Machinery-​​Infosys Foun­da­tion Award in 2008. She was inducted into the National Academy of Engi­neering in 2011.‬

‪The majority of Koller’s hour­long lec­ture at North­eastern focused on the ben­e­fits of free online learning, but she began by under­scoring the cost of higher edu­ca­tion, which increased more than 550 per­cent between 1985 and 2011. “Many,” said Koller, “find higher edu­ca­tion increas­ingly out of reach.”‬

‪For this reason, Koller founded Coursera, which bridges this gap by offering free online edu­ca­tion in courses ranging from med­ical neu­ro­science to Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Some 3.2 mil­lion stu­dents are cur­rently enrolled in more than 330 courses offered by 62 universities.‬

‪Each lesson lasts between eight and 12 min­utes, Koller explained, enabling stu­dents to “break away from the one-​​size-​​fits-​​all model of education.” ‬

‪Stu­dents are oblig­ated to engage with the mate­rial in order to progress through each lesson, Koller added, noting the imple­men­ta­tion of mean­ingful prac­tice ques­tions and auto­matic feed­back. She under­scored the value of this learning strategy by citing the results of a study that found that “forcing people to retrieve stuff you just learned rather than pas­sively reviewing the mate­rial is effec­tive in terms of down the line outcomes.”‬

‪The edu­ca­tion out­comes do indeed impress, on both an indi­vidual and global scale. For example, Koller pointed to the case of a 17 year-​​old with autism and a lim­ited vocab­u­lary who took an Amer­ican poetry class and found that “the rigor of learning helped alle­viate the severity of his disease.”‬

‪More formal methods of assess­ment are employed through a peer grading system, in which five stu­dents eval­uate each assign­ment. “The grading rubric is defined by the instructor very care­fully and the stu­dents are trained in use of the rubric,” Koller explained. “There is a tight cor­re­la­tion between grades assigned by the teaching assis­tant and the stu­dents,” she added, “sug­gesting peer grading when care­fully con­structed is a good grading strategy.”‬

‪Prior to Koller’s lec­ture, audi­ence mem­bers were treated to a fun video in which North­eastern pro­fes­sors and admin­is­tra­tors audi­tion to teach quirky Coursera courses. After her lec­ture, she fielded ques­tions posed by audi­ence mem­bers and social media users, one of whom asked how Coursera will alter the higher edu­ca­tion landscape.‬

‪Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties must be “willing to embrace this new par­a­digm and figure out that their value propo­si­tion to stu­dents cannot be con­tent because con­tent is about to become free and ubiq­ui­tous,” Koller responded.‬

‪Aoun asked Koller why Coursera does not pro­vide a more valu­able cre­den­tial. “There is no way for us to become con­tent experts in every single dis­ci­pline,” she said. “We could try to recruit instruc­tors and vet them, but it’s long and com­pli­cated and uni­ver­si­ties have done so well. Why should we try to repli­cate the effort?”‬