“If you put an instructor to sleep 300 years ago and woke him up in a classroom today, he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where I am,'” says Israeli-American computer scientist Daphne Koller, noting you could hardly say the same of fields like agriculture or health care. Koller is the co-founder of Coursera, an online education platform that offers free classes in partnership with top universities. The idea to start a company offering massive open online courses, or MOOCs, came to her in the fall of 2011. A MacArthur Genius award winner and former Stanford professor, Koller began to wonder why she should keep giving the same lectures year after year. "I could package it in much smaller, bite-size chunks that were much more fun and much more cohesive, and then use the class time for engaging with students in more meaningful ways,” she says. She began offering her own courses online, and her idea was proven instantly effective — hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world signed up to take classes with her and her colleagues. "I was awed by the impact of these courses and their ability to reach hundreds of thousands of learners from different countries, backgrounds, ages and genders. It was clear to me that this opportunity for transformative change was not something we could ignore, and that realization led us to launch Coursera in early 2012,” she says.
While it’s pretty amazing that any of us can hop online and take, say, an Ivy League psychology course, for fun, Coursera’s impact is poised to be much more massive. “Something that really struck me recently was insight from a recent data report we did on the true impact of online learning. It showed that MOOCs do have a tangible impact on the careers and lives of people of all backgrounds, not just the college educated," Koller says. "In fact, outcomes were strongest among those from emerging economies and those in the lowest socioeconomic status. It was very exciting to learn that open education has the strongest impact on those who need it most.” She doesn’t, however, believe that online education can totally replicate the experience of being in a physical classroom. The ideal scenario, she says, "is a blend of standard online content and a local mentor who knows students individually.” At the rate that Coursera is growing, Koller’s assertion of the classroom not having changed in 300 years will soon be obsolete. Coursera currently has 1,100 courses from 121 universities, and a whopping 15 million students. And about three-quarters of those students are from outside the U.S. As Koller said in her TED Talk, "Maybe the next Albert Einstein or the next Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village in Africa. And if we could offer that person an education, they would be able to come up with the next big idea and make the world a better place for all of us.”