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Daphne Koller: Online Learning is Transforming Careers Worldwide

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Stanford computer scientist and Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting | Atlantic Photography Boston

SAN JOSE, California — Online learning is already bringing significant changes to education, but its biggest impact might be on the careers of people all over the globe, said Daphne Koller at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Free online courses from educational platforms such as Coursera, co-founded by Koller in 2012, offer a way for learners in developing countries in particular to gain new technical skills or take the business classes that pave the way for a career change. Its growing global community is part of a trend that includes other providers of free, massive open online courses or MOOCs, such as edX, co-founded at Harvard and MIT, and the Kahn Academy, which offers classes aimed at all ages from kindergarten to college.

Coursera has more than 11.5 million learners worldwide, with about one-third of them living in developing countries. Half of the students polled in a recent Coursera survey said they were motivated by potential career benefits to take the classes, and one-third of that group said they had received raises, promotions, and new jobs, or had started their own businesses as a result.

Within these numbers are the individual stories, such as the Bangladeshi woman who went from making $900 a week in her bakery to more than $5000 a week after taking a series of free online classes from institutions such as the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. There's also the Nigerian tech worker who trains the staff at his start up with Coursera classes, and the 47-year old American man who went from living in his car to becoming a college freshman after building his confidence with an online class.

Some of the biggest success stories of the online learning revolution "are from emerging economies, low socioeconomic status groups, and those without a bachelor's degree," Koller suggested in her plenary address.

Koller, the Rajeev Motwani Professor in the department of computer science at Stanford University, first saw the possibilities in online learning in 2011, when she and a few other Stanford professors put three graduate computer science courses online. "We had no idea what would happen as a result of that experiment, and were rather taken aback when in a matter of weeks each of those courses had an enrollment of 100,000 students or more," she said.

The numbers were staggering, but Koller was even more impressed by the diversity of these new students. "There were people from every country, every age group, and every walk of life."

"After seeing that, it made it very difficult for us to just go back to the lab and write more papers," she recalled. "We now had the technology to take a world-class education that had only been available to a tiny handful of students who were privileged to attend an institution like Stanford, and make it available to such a broad group of people."

Coursera now offers more than 900 classes from 118 partner institutions, and works with over 5500 volunteer translators to ensure that its courses reach a large global audience. More than 30% of its learners take their classes on mobile devices, or get Internet access and guidance at U.S. embassies, libraries, and community centers that have partnered with Coursera in many countries.

Online learning offers a different kind of educational experience for both students and teachers, Koller emphasized. "These are online courses made for online consumption — they're not lectures captured from the back of the classroom," she said. "It gives you the freedom to innovate that you don't often get in a traditional classroom."

This can mean that a lecture on conservation is a 15-minute video shot in a meadow, or that students finish their physics lab on a neighborhood basketball court and capture all their data with a mobile phone. Many of these teaching and learning methods have proven so successful online that they have made their way back into traditional classrooms.

The goal is to "have high quality online content which allows the students to learn at their own pace, pause, reflect, practice," Koller said, "and then they come to class for something that is much more about active learning, problem solving, and debate and is much more engaging."