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Coursera's Global Education Ambition

Online learning co-founder says the company's mission is about access

Daphne Koller explains Coursera's mission.  Ten Duke faculty have signed up to teach free online courses through the program.  Photo by Geoffrey Mock.
Daphne Koller explains Coursera's mission. Ten Duke faculty have signed up to teach free online courses through the program. Photo by Geoffrey Mock.

The question to Daphne Koller, co-founder of the new online education platform Coursera, was this: Are you providing free college courses to lift people from poverty or to provide a comprehensive, far-reaching education to the masses?

Koller's answer, said with a smile: Yes. And yes.

Such is the broad ambition of Coursera and other, similar ventures that, of late, have set the higher education world abuzz. The fledgling company is the brainchild of Koller and her co-founder, Andrew Ng, both faculty members at Stanford. It partners with Duke and 32 other universities from the United States and abroad to provide high-level college courses free on the Internet. The universities provide the brain power; Coursera delivers it.

Koller spoke on campus Monday as part of the annual Duke University Provost Lecture Series, which this year will address issues of "big data" by bringing in speakers whose work involves computer science, research and the crunching of huge amounts of numbers.

The next is this Thursday at 5 p.m. when Duke hosts Sebastian Thrun, chief executive officer of Udacity, another online education initiative. His talk will be held in the Divinity School in 0016 Westbrook Building.

On Monday, Koller, a computer scientist, explained her new venture and was peppered with questions about its mechanics, ambitions and long-term goals.

Coursera is about bringing education to people who want it but can't get it, she said. She cited the January death of a South African mother, trampled by a crowd of more than 8,000 lined up for scarce spots at the University of Johannesburg.  The woman literally died trying to get her child into college, Koller noted, emphasizing the scarcity of high quality higher education in many parts of the globe.

"Opening up this access is a tremendous humanitarian goal," Koller said.

Since its founding earlier this year, Coursera has proven popular. More than 1.5 million people have already signed up, many from overseas. At Duke, 10 faculty members have already signed on to teach through Coursera. Duke's first Coursera venture, a bioelectricity course taught by Roger Coke Barr, began last week.

Under the Coursera model, students view lectures recorded by their professors. The lectures can vary in length, depending on how deep a professor wants to dive into a particular topic. Unlike other online education models, Coursera faculty also provide homework, small group assignments, interactive quizzes and discussion boards.

"This is a real course experience," Koller said. "It's not a bunch of static course material sitting around a website."

Rather than interact with the professor, students are encouraged to help each other solve problems and answer questions through message boards.

The mechanics of a Coursera class are designed to help students who may not be wholly prepared for college-level work, Koller said.  Students can stop or rewind a lecture if it's moving too fast, and there's no stage fright associated with asking a question in class.

"It's a lot easier to watch the video three times than put your hand up in class and say 'I don't get it,' " Koller said.

Coursera may not be Duke's only new online education venture. Administrators say they're considering a broad swath of options that would better leverage the university's teaching and technology.

The Provost Lecture Series brings the university's research and teaching mission to bear on timely issues. The third installment will feature Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University, who will present "Duolingo: Learn a Language for Free While Helping Translate the Web," at 4 p.m. Nov. 7, in Room 217, Perkins Library. Von Ahn, an associate professor of computer science, is on a mission to translate Web pages -- including video and tweets -- into every major language. His project, Duolingo, aims to transcend the language barrier and make the Internet accessible to all, especially Web newcomers logging on from developing regions.

All provost series lectures are free and open to the public. For more information on upcoming lectures in the spring, visit

For more information on Duke's Coursera venture, visit