The fireside Chat with Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, at our recent conference left one professor pondering these three issues.

By Terri Griffith (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

The future of global, free, education is here. Daphne Koller’s fireside chat at the 2014 San Francisco Women 2.0 Conference left open only three questions for me: Are students ready? How can we get more faculty ready? Are organizations ready?

Daphne Koller is the Rajeev Motwani Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and the co-founder and co-CEO of Coursera, one of the world’s largest platforms for massive on-line open courses (MOOCs). Co-founded with Andrew Ng, Coursera has more than 400 courses, spanning over 20 categories of topics, created by faculty from over 100 partner Universities in 16 countries and 13 languages. In January, they reached 6 million students, 40% of whom are in the developing world.

Koller painted a picture where education is available to everyone for free — now. Coursera funds this approach by charging for upgrades like verified certificates of completion. While she described the current students as early adoptors who likely have access to computers for classwork, they are working hard on the mobile apps (iOS is available now, Android soon).

Shaherose Charania, CEO and co-Founder of Women 2.0, was the moderator for the session and asked the questions many of us had around the relative importance of on-line versus face-to-face interaction with faculty and other students. Koller described how the social dimensions of education, both focused on the course material and broader education that comes from interacting with others, are also important in the courses they support. Students are able to get fast feedback from fellow students given the time-zone spanning nature of the platform, and many make arrangements to meet with local students in face-to-face settings. This turns the “massive” aspects of the courses to the students’ advantage; many people are participating no matter the time of day.

Are Students Ready?

Koller noted that because of the way MOOCs are run, “We have the opportunity to turn the study of how people learn into a data science.” One thing they may find is that students who are used to traditional education are not immediately prepared for success in open education. Learning to learn on your own — to decide when to meet face to face, or how to search out the best courses for your goals, for example — is not a skill that traditional education has provided. As a result traditional students may have a bigger gap to span that students coming from the developing world where access to such education is starting in a green field.

Are Faculty Ready?

Koller’s Stanford classes were already leaning towards methods appropriate for online work when she made the transition to a MOOC, yet I expect the majority of faculty have yet to design their courses with on-line foundations and global reach. Coursera’s University partners generally have internal teaching centers to support faculty as they make their transition. This kind of support will need to be available to all for more faculty to join the MOOC ranks.

Are Organizations Ready?

In some cases completion of Coursera courses can result in standard college credit, but generally not. To the extent that organizations are looking to hire based on college degrees, there is not yet a direct link from most MOOCs to increasing your chance at a job. Are organizations ready to take on or shift the filtering tools (degrees) that they use for hiring? A recent New York Times article suggests not, though forward thinking companies (e.g., Google) are looking at the data and realizing degrees aren’t the best indicators for all jobs.

The Future of Global, Free, Education Is Here

Jessica Stillman’s liveblog of the Koller’s talk caught this quote, “Education is the gateway to not just economic but societal change…. it’s a moral imperative to provide education to everyone who wants it.” However, the gate is only open if organizations include information other than traditional degrees, or there is a shift in how degrees are granted. We can help our organizations move to hire based on more direct indications of capability (e.g., simulations, work samples, etc.), and so open the gates to people with the knowledge, but perhaps not the badges of education.

Photo  credit: American Council on Education via Flickr.

About the blogger: Terri Griffith is chair of the Management Department at Santa Clara University and the author of the award-winning book, The Plugged-in Manager: Get In Tune With Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive. Connect with her on Facebook or @TerriGriffith.