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Education as a basic human right

‪Free online education can change the world, according to Daphne Koller, who cited its potential to promote peace and solve global challenges such as unemployment, poverty, and AIDS.‬

‪“The more educated people are, the less these problems exist,” explained Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, a leading platform for Massive Open Online Courses. “There is a real opportunity to take the kind of education that’s available to the privileged few and turn it into a basic human right.”‬

‪Koller discussed the online education revolution with more than 200 students, faculty, and staff who filled the Raytheon Amphitheater on Wednesday evening for the sixth installment in the “Profiles in Innovation” Presidential Speakers Series. Several hundred people also watched the event live via Northeastern’s Facebook page.‬

‪Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun hosted the event, which is designed to bring the world’s most creative minds to campus for conversations on innovation and entrepreneurship.‬

‪Koller fits the mold. A pioneer in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence, she is the Rajeev Motwani Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University. Her myriad awards and achievements include the International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence Computer and Thought Award in 2001; a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2004; and the Association for Computing Machinery-Infosys Foundation Award in 2008. She was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2011.‬

‪The majority of Koller’s hourlong lecture at Northeastern focused on the benefits of free online learning, but she began by underscoring the cost of higher education, which increased more than 550 percent between 1985 and 2011. “Many,” said Koller, “find higher education increasingly out of reach.”‬

‪For this reason, Koller founded Coursera, which bridges this gap by offering free online education in courses ranging from medical neuroscience to Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Some 3.2 million students are currently enrolled in more than 330 courses offered by 62 universities.‬

‪Each lesson lasts between eight and 12 minutes, Koller explained, enabling students to “break away from the one-size-fits-all model of education.” ‬

‪Students are obligated to engage with the material in order to progress through each lesson, Koller added, noting the implementation of meaningful practice questions and automatic feedback. She underscored the value of this learning strategy by citing the results of a study that found that “forcing people to retrieve stuff you just learned rather than passively reviewing the material is effective in terms of down the line outcomes.”‬

‪The education outcomes do indeed impress, on both an individual and global scale. For example, Koller pointed to the case of a 17 year-old with autism and a limited vocabulary who took an American poetry class and found that “the rigor of learning helped alleviate the severity of his disease.”‬

‪More formal methods of assessment are employed through a peer grading system, in which five students evaluate each assignment. “The grading rubric is defined by the instructor very carefully and the students are trained in use of the rubric,” Koller explained. “There is a tight correlation between grades assigned by the teaching assistant and the students,” she added, “suggesting peer grading when carefully constructed is a good grading strategy.”‬

‪Prior to Koller’s lecture, audience members were treated to a fun video in which Northeastern professors and administrators audition to teach quirky Coursera courses. After her lecture, she fielded questions posed by audience members and social media users, one of whom asked how Coursera will alter the higher education landscape.‬

‪Colleges and universities must be “willing to embrace this new paradigm and figure out that their value proposition to students cannot be content because content is about to become free and ubiquitous,” Koller responded.‬

‪Aoun asked Koller why Coursera does not provide a more valuable credential. “There is no way for us to become content experts in every single discipline,” she said. “We could try to recruit instructors and vet them, but it’s long and complicated and universities have done so well. Why should we try to replicate the effort?”‬