Meet The Woman Leading The Online Education Revolution

Professor Daphne Koller at the TED conference
Professor Daphne Koller at the TED conference
Flore Vasseur

PALO ALTO - Daphne Koller has a grudge against school. As a child, Israeli-born Koller wanted to solve third degree equations and learn more about dancing, Ancient Greece and poetry. But like any other pupil, she had to follow the curriculum and adapt to the system. Her thirst for learning faced the limits of mainstream education. With her parents’ approval, she dropped out of school. She entered The Hebrew University of Jerusalem at age 13 and got her Masters degree at age 18. As she turned 21, Koller left Israel for Stanford University and enrolled in a PhD in computer science. “Thanks to my family, I was able to bypass regular education and be myself. I have been very lucky. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with one issue: How to make this possible for everyone?”

Daphne’s first step was to become a professor. With her 1968 Joan Baez looks, she now teaches at Stanford University where she also runs a cancer research lab. She nurtures her two passions: “machine learning” (a branch of artificial intelligence) and biology. Her goal is to solve complex issues with the help of computers and statistics and she has written more than 180 articles published in scientific journals.

As she became one of the top-rated professors in one of America’s best colleges, she started to feel bored again. “Going to the same old classroom to teach the same old course, with the same old jokes all the time … this is really not the way I want to spend my time, and neither do the students.” With some colleagues, she started to think about a way to make her classroom more appealing.

Passive time and active time

During a conference at the Google Education Summit, the short energetic brunette attended a presentation by YouTube on education. She rushed out the room, shoving a few people on the way. She had it: until now, students went to class and listened to their teacher (passive time), they did research and homework outside class (active time). But if the course was available on video, students could watch it before class and use the time in the classroom for active learning activities (questions, brainstorming, case-studies).

This is the “flip teaching” concept, which reverses the traditional pattern of education and enhances the role of the professor. She was not the first professor to come up with this model, but nonetheless, she decided to try an experiment. Her proposal faced strong skepticism among professors: what is going to happen to face-to-face education? Is education turning into a commodity? Are humanities going to be even more left out?

Meanwhile, in the fall of 2011, her colleague Andrew Ng put his whole course on artificial intelligence online, with free access. It was a real challenge, with 400 students in the classroom and 100,000 students online. All together, 14,000 students passed the course and got their certification. Daphne and Andrew began to work together: “Professors don’t always want to adjust, especially when they get good grades. Yet if you tell them that they can reach 100,000 students instead of 40 with the same course, they start listening to you. We are getting emails from students from all over the world who had no access to higher education and who were able to find jobs thanks to the online course. You change lives and allow people to learn at the same time. That’s the role of a professor after all.”

Stanford moved forward and gave her a $150,000 grant. “The project began at Stanford with the approval of the board. It is not the only university that provides online teaching though,” she says. Princeton, UPenn, Michigan, Caltech, John Hopkins College and around 10 other universities are following suit and signing up. “We have to show that we are sincere. It is not about selling their courses or selling out their brand, it is about providing the entire world with good education and the best courses for free.”

Building on her success, Daphne has turned into a real businesswoman. From a purely academic project, the initiative was turned into a start-up called “Coursera." Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the largest venture capital firms in the Silicon Valley, has invested 16 million dollars in the project. “We have improved user interface and announced its launch last April. Today, we have 787,000 students across 190 countries, two million applications for 111 programs from robotics to poetry." Fourteen million videos have been watched in only three months.

The “freemium” model

How does it work? Professors save their course, give out homework and tests. Each video is translated into six to 10 foreign languages by student volunteers. Interactive platforms (quizzes, forums, peer reviews) engage the student users. And the machine “learns” from users’ suggestions. What is its economic model? Coursera is using what is known as the “freemium” business model: courses are free to access but students need to pay from 100 to 150 dollars to obtain their certification. In the long run, Coursera intends to connect both students and companies and become a recruitment network.

Higher education has only begun its digital transformation. The revolution hasn’t happened yet. “Universities know that what they offer has to go beyond content. They have to develop their students’ creativity, communicate passion, and teach systemic reasoning. This is the challenge they face. And the MOOC (Massive Online Open Classroom) makes it possible. We are forced to rethink courses, the time spent in classrooms and its value. For universities, this shows them that they have more to offer than content”.

As MOOC is developing, Coursera is not the only free education service on the Internet: Udacity.com was born at Stanford through the same experiment on artificial intelligence. This fall, Harvard University and the MIT will launch a $60 million platform together called “EdX.” As Stanford President John Hennessy said in the New Yorker, “there's a tsunami coming."

Free wheeling Daphne Koller lives her life as fast as a Ferrari. She tells her story in a soft voice, smiles and breathes intelligence. At the end of the interview, she looks at us, amused, and says: “We are looking for courses from foreign universities. Can you help me get content from France?”

“Coursera is my way of changing the world. I hope I will succeed. Actually, the best part is trying.” She believes teaching has become too expensive, exclusive, boring and inefficient. Daphne Koller is full of enthusiasm and this is exactly what it takes: education is at the core of each one of life’s transformations. One thing is for sure: the Joan Baez of higher education has settled her score with school. In California, people call that a “killer idea."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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