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Education for all

Posted 18/02/2015 by sevans

I almost didn't go. Day two of the AAAS conference in San Jose, CA, and still waking up at 3am in the morning with jet lag, I'd already saturated my grey matter through hours of high level discussions on everything from the future of the internet to autonomous cars, visualising chronic pain and e-cigarettes. The 5pm plenary lecture on 'The online revolution: learning without limits' was by Daphne Koller, someone I'd never heard off, and wouldn't end until 6.

I'm so glad I went. Daphne Koller, it turns out, is one of Time magazine's top 100 most influential people. Listening to her talk, it's not hard to see why.

The president and founder of online education platform Coursea, Koller's mission is all about taking classroom learning, currently only available only to a privileged minority, and making it freely accessible to all online.

Spun out of Stanford University in 2012, Coursera now boasts 900 courses – on everything from chemistry and business studies to archaeology and artificial intelligence – with 11.5m learners in five of the seven continents (there are Coursera students even in North Korea!). Two million students have completed Coursera courses, including a formerly homeless man in Louisiana who became 'Outstanding student of the Year in psychology'; a woman who set up a successful bakery course after escaping servitude in Bangladesh; and a man in Nigeria who now employs 10 staff in his own engineering firm (all of whom are encouraged to do Coursera courses themselves).

It seems like a relatively simple idea: harnessing the power of the internet to educate the masses. But Koller's real achievement has been in coordinating the massive international effort needed to get Coursea up and running. Courses are available from 118 partner institutions – including Yale and Stanford – and in more than 20 languages, translated free of charge by the online students themselves. Students can choose to learn at their own pace, redoing exercises as often as necessary until they get it right, and assessed by a system of peer grading that leads to 'meaningful credentials' with a verified certificate to present to potential employees.

I was reminded of Koller's talk later in the week at another AAAS press conference on 'Can we feed the world in 2050?' when Stanford University's Paul Ehrlich (of 'magic bullet' fame) posited the idea of a deliberate dumbing down of the population so we remain ignorant of the true scale of the problems the world faces – and of the inadequacy of the political responses to tackle them. Education is the most powerful tool we have not only to transform lives, but also to change attitudes and shape individual beliefs. If we can find a way to make it accessible and affordable to everyone, then maybe there is hope for us all.

Cath O'Driscoll – deputy editor

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