Daphne Koller, computer scientist, founder of Coursera, and former professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University, speaks to how higher education has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and whether these changes are here to stay.
How do you think the pandemic has changed higher education?
Even before the pandemic, we had a lot of students who either did not want or found it difficult to engage in face-to-face teaching. For more privileged students, it was a matter of convenience, but for very many students it’s a matter of necessity. In some cases, there are students in challenging circumstances that are taking classes while also taking care of a family or working one or two jobs
There are a lot of people bringing up the question: is the college experience still worth it if it’s completely online. What are your thoughts?
I think part of the reason for this dichotomized view that you’re getting is that it depends on the kind of college experience that you were thinking of in the context of your child or in this abstract sense. Universities are going to have to think hard on how to recreate something like a full college experience in a virtual setting. Something between 70 to 80 percent of college students in the United States are non-traditional learners. These are not your typical Harvard and Stanford students. These are people who work one or two jobs, they’re raising a family, and are struggling to fit their learning around the rest of their lives. What college experience have we really taken away from them? I think there are certainly pieces of it that we need to think about, like direct engagement with an instructor and really having someone get to know you.
Some colleges and schools are really starting back up because some professors are just not agreeing or adopting as quickly to new technologies. Is there anything that these faculty members should be thinking about when trying to adopt and roll out new technology for all students?
I think that transcends technology. The challenge is not even primarily in the technology aspect, but in getting faculty to teach in a different set of tools. I’m not talking about technological tools. I’m talking about pedagogical tools. When I was at Stanford, there was a push for people to adopt more active learning elements in their classroom to promote engagement, and most professors were like, “Leave me alone. I come in, I lecture, I take some questions and that’s it. I’m not about to change.”
I think there are two pieces. One is, as you said, the technological divide and the other is the pedagogical divide. I think that actually the latter is more challenging than the former. And the challenge of course is that teaching the old-fashioned lecturing way in an online format is even less engaging than it was face-to-face, and that’s why these two are mixed together.
As a co-founder of Coursera, do you think that given what’s currently out there in the market, there are enough effective digital alternatives to create personal engagement and retention?
Coursera has done an amazing job in building a remarkable content platform where universities are able to put out some truly remarkable content. Of course, the content quality itself is a really important part of engagement as well. If you have a course where someone just drones on and on for hours about something that is not very relevant, and it’s not very dynamic, then that’s a very bad starting point for anything. Coursera hasn’t really focused on interactive engagement between instructors and students due to the nature of the platform. I think Engageli, the other company that I co-founded recently, has really taken that problem head-on with a focus on engagement. Ultimately, the quality of your learning experience is a combination of the content and the experience around the content, and I think Coursera has done an amazing job of the first, and we’re hoping do an amazing job with engagement as well through Engageli.
How do you think data informs the strategic decision-making process for the higher education institutions?
I wish it informed it more. There are many data points that speak to the value of certain types of interventions and certain types of interactions. And that is not often something that I think guides decision making. Pre-pandemic, there was an attitude among many universities that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Now, and of course during the pandemic, everyone was just scrambling like crazy to get anything off the ground, so there wasn’t as much opportunity for really big, driven decision making.