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: 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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