Daphne Koller on Coursera in refugee camps, and why our education systems won't help us in the future

Harriet Green
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There are 190,000 data science jobs in the US alone that can't be filled (Source: Getty)

If you've never done a MOOC – a massive open online course – you likely know someone who has.

Coursera is the biggest provider in the world. Launched just four years ago, it now has almost 20m learners worldwide, in 140 institutions across 28 countries. In the UK, there are over 600,000 users.

Co-founder Daphne Koller was impressive before she became an entrepreneur. The computer science academic received her bachelor’s degree in 1985, aged 17. After that, she became one of the leaders in her field, awarded the first ever $150,000 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in computer sciences in 2008. But in 2012, she and fellow Stanford professor Andrew Ng set up Coursera.

“We initially did it as an experiment at Stanford – it was a way to give people a new experience. Then we got to the point where we thought, ‘well, that was fun. Now is it back to writing papers?’ That didn’t feel like the right thing to do.” Koller then took a leave of absence to capitalise on the rapid growth the company saw – 1.2m people signed up for courses in the first year alone and, by December 2013, Coursera had raised $83m in venture capital. “It felt a little surreal. I felt like the main character from Being John Malkovich – like I was living someone else’s life. But it was so much fun, so I ran with it.”

Coursera now offers over 1,500 different courses, many of which are free, from Python for Everybody with the University of Michigan to An Introduction to Classical Music from Yale. Three of the most popular courses in the UK are Speaking English Professionally, Machine Learning and How to Create a Website in a Weekend.

Read more: Six free online courses to improve your career prospects

Koller explains that tech is, unsurprisingly, one of Coursera’s biggest growth areas (along with business and soft skills like communications). The company is gaining traction in the UK (which Koller puts down to the burgeoning tech scene), India (again, tech is increasingly important, and an inflexible higher education system means that not passing one set of exams can resign you to lower-calibre institutions and unemployment) and Latin America. There, Coursera is working to onboard Spanish and Portuguese courses. “We don’t have a silver bullet for language barriers quite yet – you can only get some way with subtitles. That said, we have learners in every country around the world.”

Something for everyone

In the last 12 months, its moved into masters programmes: “we’ve got an exciting move coming up in the UK, but I can’t talk about it yet. Not only are courses online, very low-cost, but we also have a unique stackable format which enables people to make a step forward in their career while also continuing with their career.” Adding value while you go is one way Coursera differs from the status quo of learning. “Degrees are very straight run things. Eighty per cent is worth nothing – then you finish and it’s suddenly worth something.”

And helping people advance in their career is something Coursera has been able to do increasingly well, particularly as it becomes recognised. “We know employers look out for our courses on LinkedIn, and the credentials we can enable people to access are seen as valuable.” This is corroborated anecdotally by the numerous Coursera-related blogs online where users describe how the platform helped them climb the career ladder, or get a job in Silicon Valley.

A specialist in AI, Koller is optimistic about the future of jobs in regard to the “AI revolution... the pessimists will say that this time it’s different but, as with the industrial revolution, I’m confident that other job categories will emerge. But either way, what’s clear is that the jobs being created will require everyone to be far more skilled. We’ll also need people to deal with ill-formed problems that computers, which are still linear thinkers, can’t deal with. We don’t teach those kinds of skills very well in schools.”

Koller points out that there are currently 190,000 data science jobs in the US alone that can’t be filled. “We hope we can help close that skills gap. It’s not just something a bootcamp can teach; you need teachers. And there’s a reason teaching is a profession – it’s hard!”

This touches on one of the criticisms of MOOCs: can you really teach remotely? Over the years, people doing MOOCs have been documented gathering together in coffee shops and co-working spaces. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped learner acquisition. The point, says Koller, is that we no longer live in an age where you do all your “upfront learning for four years when you start your career. You need to provide people with the ability to refresh the skill they’ve got, and in a way that’s suited the modern age. That’s going to be even more important when you’ve got 80 year-olds still gainfully employed.”

Breaking new ground

Koller believes that Coursera has “the opportunity to totally transform how we teach and learn. Think about astronomy. It used to be a discipline where you could look at a small part of the sky. Then the Hubble came along, and now we can ask questions about the rate at which the universe is expanding. Similarly, in biology, we had scientists looking at three proteins under a microscope. Now we can ask questions about how an individual within a population will respond to different diseases. I think we can do the same with human learning.”

The future, she explains, is individualised learning: “we’ll be able to ask what one person did in one exercise, really understand what changes can make a difference to teaching, and make numerous tweaks to help each person perform better.”

In the meantime, Coursera is improving the lives of a wider range of people than you might initially think. Last week, in partnership with the US Department of State, it launched Coursera for Refugees. The programme will allow displaced people to build career skills quickly by accessing all of the platform’s courses. It has also partnered with non-profits to collect things like learner engagement data, and provide technical support.

Read more: The refugee crisis and the problem with Europe's elites

Koller explains that Coursera has already done a project with Geneva University that saw trailer classrooms with solar panels put in African refugee camps – and this is just the next stage. “It’s a wonderful, philanthropic collaboration between for-profit, non-profit and state. Education is absolutely essential as a way of helping people overcome enormous difficulty. And we’re very excited about making the huge amount of content we have accessible to people who have been displaced.”

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