Technology of Massive Open Online Courses

Experts in artificial intelligence are leaving academia to bring online learning to the world. But their most radical ideas are still on hold.

The wave of enthusiasm for online education is unearthing some hard and interesting computational problems that Daphne Koller would love to solve. But first she has to find the time.

Last January, Koller and her colleague Andrew Ng took leave from faculty positions at Stanford University’s artificial-intelligence lab to create Coursera, a venture-financed online-education startup with offices five miles from campus.

Since then, Coursera’s growth has been rapid and all consuming. The company has posted more than 200 free classes taught by professors at 33 top universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Caltech. More than 1.5 million students have signed up, and about 70,000 new students—the equivalent of four or five Stanfords—join every week.

Koller, 44, now spends her average day “probably on a plane somewhere” headed to pitch Coursera to university administrators and faculty. The last 10 months have transformed her from a celebrated expert in statistics into the co-CEO of a large and complex educational website whose money-making plans are still nascent.....

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