As Daphne Koller prepares to teach a course called Probabilistic Graphical Models this spring, the Stanford University computer science professor is in uncharted territory. More than 44,000 people across the globe have registered for the class, many times the total number of students she has taught in 17 years at Stanford.
Koller, a 43-year-old Israeli who graduated from college in Jerusalem at age 17 before attending Stanford for her Ph.D., is engaged in one of the most ambitious projects of her career. She and her colleague Andrew Ng last fall founded Coursera, a company that has created one of the world’s most advanced free online learning efforts.
More than 250,000 people in 172 countries signed up for the first three computer science offerings. A second batch is expected to include 15 classes, adding other fields such as anatomy and social sciences. Two are being taught by professors at the University of California at Berkeley and another is from the University of Michigan. The rest are taught by Stanford professors. The new courses were to begin in February, but most have been delayed due to legal concerns over copyrighted material used in the classes and other issues. Koller says she is confident the problems will be ironed out soon.
Coursera’s software, developed by Stanford undergrad and graduate students, is what distinguishes the program from similar offerings by other schools. Classes involve recorded lectures and quizzes in which the video pauses to let students answer questions; when the video resumes, they get immediate feedback and the program automatically grades their responses. Another feature lets students submit questions, which are presented to other students who help select the most relevant ones. Those are then sent on to the professor. Participants who satisfactorily complete the coursework get what’s called a statement of accomplishment from Coursera.
Enrollees range from teens to grandparents, Koller says, and include students at other universities, professionals seeking to improve their skills, and people who can’t afford tuition. “Getting access to such a big component of what a Stanford student gets was really what grabbed people’s imagination,” says Koller, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004 for her work in artificial intelligence.
While teaching students across the globe will be new for Koller, she knows a fair amount about where many of them live. She has visited more than 50 countries, including a recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. At the ages of seven and nine, her two children have already been to Fiji, Israel, Greece, and Costa Rica, among other places. While Koller hopes Coursera eventually becomes profitable, she says that’s not its primary goal. “There are millions of people around the world who will never have access to this quality of education,” Koller says. “Let’s put the content out there.”