Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller: “Successful courses must have an interactive element”

Sometimes interactivity can be done alone on a computer screen, but most of the time interactivity requires other people – who can either help you practice or give feedback on the skill you are learning. This is an “essential piece of what makes for a successful course – online or offline”.

That is one of the many takeaways from our latest interview on eLearning with Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera and it’s the reason behind her new eLearning start up: Engageli.

Daphne spoke of the eLearning journey she has been on since starting Coursera back in 2011.

Coursera started as a way to improve learning for her students at Stanford. Her hypothesis was that there were some things – in particular lectures – that could be better delivered online.

But what she found left her “awestruck”:

“Within a matter of weeks, with effectively no marketing, hundreds of thousands of learners from all over the world were enrolled. These were people from every country, from every age group and from every walk of life.”

“It really focused our energies on how do we achieve scale? How do we achieve access to a large number of people?”

And by her own admission, “engagement and interaction got a little bit sidelined”.

Now Daphne is returning to the original mission. “We have all this amazing content out there from top universities, top companies… how does one create a truly engaging, interactive learning experience?”

And in Daphne’s view, the answer to this question for most students means “they need to engage with other people”. In other words, fully self-paced learning is something “most mortals” will struggle with.

This is why Dapnhe has set up Engageli. It’s her answer to the “Zoom High School” that so many students were subjected to during the pandemic – including her own teenage daughters.

Engageli seems aimed at allowing the virtual classroom to have the sort of interaction that is possible with an in-person classroom, such as allowing teachers to give quick feedback and allowing people to easily set up peer-to-peer groups.

How can this need for interactivity be used by others in eLearning?

I asked Daphne to share her own tips – and her insights on what makes a good course, from the many thousands of online courses at Coursera. Here are some take aways:

  • Content delivery can be done online. “The use of class time for passive consumption of content with students just sitting there watching an instructor talk. I don’t see why that is a better experience to be doing with a live instructor versus on a video where at least you have the opportunity to pause, rewind, maybe do a little bit of a quiz and then continue.”
  • Keep videos short – Bear in mind the time constraints of the learners. 4-6 minutes is good. 10-12 minutes is ok. “If it started to get to 18 to 25 minutes, it began to be challenging for people just to fit it into their workday”
  • Keep the content learner outcome centred – “Try to prune out a lot of the sort of unnecessary stuff around the content and really focus on the things that matter that matter to people”
  • Keep assignments “hands on”. Assignments such as essays, exercises or quizzes need to be practical to the skill the student is learning.
  • Focus the teacher-time on interactivity. Use the time together betweena live instructor and other live students on “the dialog, the discussion, the working through problems together”.

Finally, on the pandemic and the trends in online education, Daphne thinks that some changes are here to stay.

“I think a lot of academic institutions were still under this impression that somehow online learning is not the kind of thing that good institutions engage in. What we’ve seen in the pandemic is just how readily people gravitated towards online learning. And how with appropriate course design you can really create a learning experience online that in some ways is as good as – or even in some places better – than in-class experience.”

You can watch the full interview below. In the next episodes we speak to the Head of Learning at edX and Head of AI at Duolingo.

Episode 2 of Adventures in eLearning, with Coursera Co-Founder Daphne Koller

For more on our approach to eLearning, get in touch.


Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman: Don’t let technology get in the way of good teaching

Technology should focus on the things it can do better than humans – and leave the rest. If we are not careful, technology can make bad teaching worse – rather than support good teaching.

Adventures in eLearning: a teaser

This is what Carl Wieman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005, told me in the first episode of Adventures in eLearning. Carl Wieman’s main qualification for saying so is not actually his Nobel Prize but his role as a Professor of Graduate Education at Stanford and as a pioneer of ‘active learning’ – something for which he was awarded the Yidan Prize in Education Research in 2020.

To be clear, Carl Wieman isn’t saying that technology is bad – but that the first question for any educator, and by extension anyone involved in eLearning – should be ‘what is best for the student?’ rather than be obsessed with technology.

Technology shows the old ways of working are so blatantly obviously bad

Carl Wieman

Carl Wieman’s answer to the question: ‘what is best for the student?’ is emphatically: ‘active learning’.

So, what is active learning and how do apply it to eLearning?

Here’s a summary:

  • Start with the key skill you want the learner to learn – the ‘learning objective’
  • Break that down into bitesize chunks that can be taught and practiced.
  • Focus on delivering these chunks, then getting students to practice these chunks and – here’s the key – provide feedback.
  • Technology should be used only when it supports this fundamental approach.
    • Technology is best used to deliver the chunks and scale the delivery. Think of videos or written material that can be delivered online to many people at once.
    • Technology can also be used to enable the practicing of these chunks, with Zoom breakout rooms for example, to allow students to practice in groups.
    • Technology can also be used to provide feedback, for example in a multiple-choice question that gives prompts when a student gets the answer wrong.
    • BUT Carl Wieman argues that humans are still best placed to provide the practice and the feedback.
Episode 1 of Adventures in eLearning, with Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman

Another way of looking at ‘active learning’ is as ‘deliberate practice’ – a phrase coined by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson in his book Peak, among others. It’s the way athletes learn and improve their golf swing or a tennis serve. Or how musicians learn to play piano. Or how everyone learns to to walk and talk. They break it down into bitesize chunks, they practice and they have a coach/teacher/parent to give feedback. Carl Wieman told me that deliberate practice is the “overall guiding principle of active learning”. For Carl Wieman, the skill in question isn’t a golf swing, but learning to think in a certain way.

Carl Wieman is the first interview in a new series Adventures in eLearning – a series for people who design and deliver eLearning. Why are we launching a new series? Well, there is a boom in eLearning – a quick Google will give some eyewatering statistics on the money flowing in – and that has only sped up with the global pandemic. And, as with any boom, there is a lot of noise, a lot of wasted money – and perhaps more importantly, a lot of wasted time. In this series we speak to leaders in the field in the hope of cutting through the hype. Carl and I had met a few years back when we made a short documentary about active learning for Nature Magazine at the annual meeting of Nobel Laureates at Lindau – and so I knew he’d set some things straight in my mind.

He didn’t disappoint. It’s all about good teaching first and foremost. As Carl Wieman says: technology can make bad teaching even worse, but used right it can make good teaching even better.

In the next episode, we speak to Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera about her journey to set up a new eLearning start up in response to her teenage daughters being taught, badly, during the pandemic.


For more on our approach to eLearning, get in touch.


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