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Daphne Koller


In the education world, and particularly digital education, Daphne Koller is a rock star. Not only has this former Stanford University professor helped launch the education revolution with MOOCs — massive open online courses — she has also been recognized as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012 and one of Newsweek’s most important people in 2010.

As an award-winning teacher, Koller has taken her experience at Stanford, where she was the Rajeev Motwani Professor of Computer Science, to form Coursera, an innovative online education platform that offers university courses for free. Koller co-founded the startup in 2012 in the San Francisco area with Andrew Ng, also a former Stanford professor. Both Koller and Ng left their tenured faculty posts at Stanford after seeing the potential that online courses can have.

Their mission for Coursera is a simple one: to educate millions of people around the world for free, while transforming how top universities teach. To date, Coursera hosts courses from approximately 140 universities worldwide, while offering an education to nearly 10 million students. With the face-to-face lecture consuming hours of class time and student interaction low in many cases, Koller believes online classes can be highly beneficial.

“When you’re giving a lecture and you stop to ask a question, 50 percent of the class is scribbling away and didn’t hear you; another 20 percent are on Facebook; and one smarty-pants in the front row blurts out the answer,” she told Fast Company. “Why not take the 75-minute lecture, break it up into short pieces and add interactive engagement into the video so that every five minutes there’s a question?”

Essentially, Coursera courses are six to 10 weeks in duration, with one to two hours of video per week. There are also snap quizzes, weekly exercises  and sometimes a final exam. For quantitative courses, Coursera uses artificial intelligence to evaluate each longer exercise with instant results.

Some critics have questioned whether an online educational experience is as beneficial as a residential college experience. Koller’s response is that an online education especially aids people who don’t have the opportunity to have a residential college experience.

“Even in the United States, something like 85 percent of college students are nonresidential students,” she said in an interview with WSJ Live. “The other population we are looking to serve are those people who have already completed that undergraduate education and are now working adults who are discovering that the skills they need today are not the ones they learned when they went to school, and in many cases didn’t even exist when they went to school.”

Teaching models have begun to change as more universities increase their number of virtual course offerings, according to Koller. “I think that over the course of the next few years we will see universities beginning to place a much bigger focus on that part of their offering and less on creation and delivery of content, which in many cases can be obtained very easily and with very high quality from the kind of online sources that we are putting together.”

In August, Koller announced in a blog post that she would be joining Alphabet Inc.’s Calico company to focus on processes to enable people to live longer, healthier lives. She will continue to stay engaged with Coursera as co-chair of the board. —Lisa Kopochinski