We spoke with Coursera co-founder and Women 2.0 conference speaker about the company’s efforts to broaden the population being served by online education.
By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

It’s hard to be pessimistic about MOOCs. Massive open online courses hold out the tantalizing promise of offering a world-class education to everyone, no matter their financial situation or geographical location. Who wouldn’t cheer the promise of no more great brains left on the sidelines of innovation?

But while just about everyone loves the idea of MOOCs, some critics note that, as of yet, the folks actually taking these courses and succeeding in finishing them don’t differ all that markedly from those students who already excel in traditional education. We spoke with Daphne Koller, the co-founder of much buzzed about MOOC provider Coursera, (she is also one of the keynote speakers at our upcoming conference), about what these skeptics misunderstand about the numbers and what her company is doing to make sure they’re able to bring MOOCs to the masses, here and abroad.

How was moving from being an academic to founding a startup? How steep was the learning curve?

Woah! The learning curve is enormous. It’s a very different type of environment, a very different lifestyle. I can’t say I’m done learning, but it’s been a tremendously exciting thing to do because you’re creating something that directly touches the lives of literally millions of people. As an academic you touch the lives of the students and you hope that your research will have impact, but that’s something that usually takes awhile.

Do you find that attitudes towards online education are changing?

Definitely. Two years ago when we started, if you asked people at top universities about online education, you would have gotten a slightly dismissive attitude because it was viewed primarily as the purview of lower-ranked institutions and being a somewhat inferior form of education. There is a growing recognition that online components are going to have to be a significant part of the educational experience, both within academic institutions with methods like flipped classroom, and also in terms of providing access to education to a much larger population.

Let’s talk about access. Some critics have noted that those utilizing online education are often the same folks who are already succeeding at traditional education, so it’s not expanding access as much as hoped. Is that the case at Coursera, and if so, are you doing anything to make the classes work for a broader population?

First of all, some of the studies are based on the population of students who took a particular set of courses, and specifically a lot of our earlier courses are advanced courses, graduate level courses, and so it’s completely unsurprising that the people who took those courses were ones that already had degrees. Another component is that initially, as with any new technology, there’s a population of early adopters. Early adopters, by and large, tend to be more educated.

That being said, I also think that within our existing population of people who already have degrees, a good number of those are in parts of the world where degrees might not actually be all that strong as an academic credential. In India, for example, every large employer has, effectively, a university of their own where they take people who already have diplomas and retrain them from scratch because they didn’t really learn very much as part of their college education. So seeing that 40% of our students are in the developing world, I think this also serves as a very important supplement for people who may have a formal college education but who feel like this is a critical component of their chances of employability.

And finally, absolutely, we’re looking to extend more into entry-level courses for people who have not had any college education whatsoever. Some of the work that we’ve done on internationalization is directly in line with that, some of the work that we’re doing on mobile is part of that, the work that we’re doing on Learning Hubs with the State Department. All of these are mechanisms we’re looking at so as to increase the penetration of this technology to populations that could really benefit most significantly.

Are you expecting more formal credentials like the specializations you just announced to improve student retention rates or are you working on other means to keep students engaged?

Having a more meaningful credential at the end is definitely a carrot. I don’t think it’s going to hugely drive up the retention numbers, primarily because, if you look at the statistics, a very large fraction of the students who sign up for these courses have no intent to complete them to begin with. They’re there because they want to learn something. They’re not there to get a credential at all.

The key metric that we really need to define and implement is something that looks at retention in the context of student intent — that is, how many students who come into the course with an intention to complete actually do that? And the statistics there are actually not so bad. It’s something on the order of 63-64%. If they also sign up for the credential and put a little bit of skin in the game like the $50 that this costs, the retention rate goes up into the high 80s. So I don’t think we’re doing that badly.

We could certainly aim to do better by putting in mechanisms like gamification — badges and rewards and things — by putting in mechanisms for social learning, which is known to increase retention rates because people feel obligated to continue working with their study group-mates, but I think when people report these so-called woeful retention rates in MOOCs, it’s because they don’t really understand what retention means in this context. It’s kind of like picking up a book and reading a couple of chapters.

Want to hear more from Daphne? Join us at the conference!

Jessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebel) is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com, contributes regularly to Forbes and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.
Image credit: TED Conference via Flickr.