Coursera founder and UBC professors discuss MOOCs space

By Heather McCabe posted on August 21st, 2013


Coursera founder Daphne Koller (second from left) and UBC professors Kevin Leyton-Brown, Rosemary Redfield, and Gregor Kiczales spoke about their experiences with MOOCs.

Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera, currently the largest provider of massive open online classes, or MOOCs, spoke recently at UBC about the short history and rapid growth of this emerging model and its impact on university education. Koller also emphasized how MOOCs have opened up access to higher education for millions of people around the world and are helping to make education “a basic human right.”

Koller was joined by three UBC professors who are currently teaching or recently taught MOOCs on genetics, game theory, and computer programming. They spoke about what they’ve learned about teaching in this space so far.

As David Farrar, UBC Provost and Vice President Academic, who opened the discussion said, the numbers regarding MOOCs are “stunning.” Four million students have taken Coursera’s 429 courses, and those students come from every country in the world. Since UBC’s first MOOC, Game Theory, launched in January, close to 300,000 students have registered for the university’s five MOOCs from almost every country in the world. That’s about five times the size of UBC’s student population.

But intimately tied to the origins of Coursera and UBC’s pilot of five MOOCs, and not necessarily evident by looking at the numbers alone or the basic structure of the model, is how Koller and instructors at UBC are also using MOOCs to improve the educational model in university classrooms.

Koller began looking at this issue four or five years ago when she and a group of award-winning teachers at Stanford University were invited by the administration to find ways that faculty could interact more meaningfully with students, as opposed to the one way lecture model favoured at Stanford and other institutions. A few months later she was listening to a talk about YouTube and realized it would be a better use of her time and her students’ time if they could do something that was dynamic and contextual in class and get the content outside of class before engaging in these more interactive experiences, or basically flipping the classroom.

“For me the beginning of this was not actually a MOOC,” Koller said, “It was how to improve the quality of education for Stanford students, and it was only at that point as a, ‘Oh yeah, and we could also, if we’re giving all of this great content to Stanford students, why don’t we open it up and make it available to the rest of the world?’ was kind of a second step in my mind. And of course, that’s what caught the imaginations of so many people because of the numbers that are involved and the open access nature of it and the opening up of some of the world’s best educational experiences to so many people.

“But for me,” Koller continued, “I think the first half of it is still as equally important as the second half, that is, you still need to provide people with that basic educational experience, and I think that this kind of blend of really high quality content which you could really refine and enhance and provide people with a really deep and engaging online experience, that’s half of it, but the other half which is the kind that you get from personal communication in a classroom with an instructor with peers is, I think, equally important for great learning outcomes.”

Gregor Kiczales, a computer science professor at UBC who teaches the MOOC Introduction to Systematic Program Design, echoed Koller’s comments about trying new ways of engaging students in class when speaking about his motivations for getting into the MOOC space. “I saw an opportunity to move far beyond what’s possible with the flipped classroom in the past to really have this great resource of content material, much better than we’ve ever had before, that students could have before coming into the classroom,” he said. “And I thought there was a chance of taking our classroom courses much farther than they’ve ever been taken before because of the greatly increased quality of this material. And that’s what we’re trying to play with.”

Koller pointed out that the traditional structure of a lecture has been designed more around logistics at university campuses, and not necessarily how students learn material in the best way. “We teach in 50 or 75 minute blocks because of the need to move students into one room and out at the end. Not a particularly natural unit for students’ attention spans or, for that matter, for the material itself. And so instead what we’re doing here is we’re breaking the material up into small units of eight to 10 minutes that the students can traverse at their own pace at their own time, pausing when they need to pause, rewinding when they need to review the material, and so you could really allow students to personalize the learning experience to their own pace and their own needs.”

The material can be personalized further to accommodate students’ interests or needs either for a MOOC or for the application of the MOOC later on in a flipped classroom, for example by providing background material that some students may need but others not, or providing optional material that some students may want to pursue. In this way, Koller said, “You can really move away from the one size fits all model of education that’s been imposed on us in these 400 person lectures.”

Another level of personalization that Koller and Kiczales spoke about is providing more information to students who choose an incorrect answer to a question. Instructors can customize feedback for students to explain what students might want to consider when looking at the question or problem again. As Kiczales said, “I really have the sense that in the future every single wrong answer that you click is going to get you a video about that wrong answer.”

Kiczales also talked about how he’s trying to develop a multi-tiered, multi-layered, and multi-pathed set of materials that will help address different problems students have and will help reach different kinds of students. In speaking about content, Koller made the comment that “high quality content is about to become free and ubiquitous.” It seems like MOOCs are one of the first steps in making that happen.


In September of 2011, Koller and other instructors and administrators at Stanford took three fairly advanced courses in computer science and put them out there for anyone around the world to take for free. They were expecting a few thousand people to sign up for the courses. Within a matter of weeks, each of the courses had enrollments of 100,000 students or more. In the beginning of 2012, Koller and Andrew Ng, a fellow computer science professor at Stanford and Coursera founder, started looking for funds to spin off the project outside of Stanford.

Since the numbers involved with MOOCs are so large, instructors can look at the data gathered from the courses and try to improve learning in the online setting, as well. “Here, one of the things that you get is a measurement of student behavior and student performance at a very fine level of detail throughout the course and at a scale of tens of thousands of students,” Koller said. “And that can give you tremendous insight into what’s working and what’s not.”

One of the things that Koller talked about that seems to be working with MOOCs is the instantaneous feedback that students get when they take online quizzes or do exercises that can be graded automatically. “Here, the feedback is immediate, and that, especially for today’s generation, turns this into a computer game,” Koller said. This aspect of MOOCs allows students to resubmit an answer to a question when their response is incorrect, and most students, after repeatedly trying a question, gravitate to a perfect or close to perfect score.

In looking at the data around this, Koller said, this method of learning seems to get better results. “Specifically, if you look for students who perform comparably on the initial submission of say problem set one, the ones who did this mastery learning perform better not just on problem set one, but also on problem set two. And so it does seem that this gives rise to a better foundation not just for getting this assignment right but also for further assignments down the line.”

For assignments that cannot be graded by a computer, MOOCs use a system of peer grading where students assess the work of their peers using a well-designed grading rubric. This system also has pedagogical benefits, explained Koller, because it allows students to see different approaches to the same problem or assignment, thus helping to teach students how to think creatively. Peer grading has also widened the breadth of the kinds of courses that can be offered on this scale.

Koller also discussed a paper, “The 2 Sigma Problem,” written by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom almost 30 years ago. Bloom looked at three different classroom environments, a traditional lecture with 35 students; a similar lecture, but one using mastery learning, where students could only move on to the next topic after they had mastered the previous one; and students taught by an individual tutor. In his research, Bloom found that students’ achievement scores in the one-on-one tutoring setting were a standard deviation higher than those in the mastery learning context, which in turn were a standard deviation higher than in the lecture setting.

According to Koller, it is quite easy to reach the results achieved by mastery learning with technology, however achieving results like those with an individual tutor is more challenging. But, she said, the way that MOOCs are designed to incorporate some personalized elements could help reach that goal. “We’ve talked about self-paced and we’ve talked about personalized feedback using large data analytics, so maybe as researchers, I think it’s a fascinating research question to see how close to the [results achieved by individual tutoring] we can get using technology.”

Another thing about the large numbers involved with MOOCs is the different experience that the instructors have. Rosemary Redfield, who has taught her MOOC, Useful Genetics, cited two students, an oncologist and a woman who knows a lot about cat genetics, who have contributed their knowledge to the course. “I don’t feel that the large numbers are a problem at all, but what I’m really getting is the benefits of the breadth of backgrounds and experience that students are bringing to the course,” Redfield said. “It enriches the course amazingly.”

Koller also mentioned a Princeton professor who told her that he had learned more from his students while teaching a MOOC on sociology than he had in the 12 years he taught the subject at Princeton University because he was encountering and holding discussions with a much more diverse group of students from all over the world.


Coursera was founded in April of last year with $16 million in venture capital funds. The company launched with four university partners, and that number has increased to 75, including a recent partnership with 10 U.S. state university systems and public schools.

One of the breakdowns of student population that Koller seemed the most inspired by is the fact that 40 percent of Coursera’s students come from what the U.S. State Department defines as the developing world. Only about 35 percent come from North America.

“In the developing world, very few people have any kind of access to higher education simply because the capacity is not there,” Koller said. “Even if they had no limitations of family or geography or money there are just not enough places at the universities in these countries to provide an education to the many students who need it. And in fact, there’s no way to address that problem even within a generation or maybe even two to build enough human capital there to teach all the students who need to be taught.

“And so in order for us to help these countries overcome that limitation, we need to give them a different mechanism to provide education to their citizens and this is one way of basically leapfrogging that problem into a different way of teaching that allows them to take education from a privilege of the very few into something that’s a basic human right.”

At the same time, Koller also spoke about how close to 85 percent of registered Coursera students have a bachelor’s degree, master’s, or Ph.D., indicating that the majority of students fall into the category of university-educated, lifelong learners.

Looking at Coursera’s rapid growth over a relatively compressed timeframe and other changes that are happening in education, Kiczales speculated on the opportunities that he sees opening up in the landscape of higher education in the next few years.

“There are all kinds of different players that are coming in to add to the education space. So where I think we’ll be in five years is I think the opportunities for learners both at the university level and in the lifelong setting are going to be better than they’ve ever been before. It’s going to be an incredibly great time to be a student of any age. Whenever you go through that kind of thing, the people in the most established institutions kind of wake up everyday going, ‘So what’s today going to be?’ I think it’s going to be incredibly exciting,” Kiczales said. “I think we’re going to do better than we’ve ever done before.”


You can watch a video stream of the full talk here.