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Daphne Koller

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The daughter of two teachers, Daphne Koller has spent her entire life around education. Now, as the co-founder of Coursera, she’s helping build the next wave of learning for a connected world.

Koller was born August 27, 1968. She grew up in Jerusalem, and, after skipping several grades, enrolled at The Hebrew University there in 1982. By 1985, at age 17, she had earned her BSc in Mathematics and Computer Science. She remained at The Hebrew University for graduate studies, earning her master’s degree a year later. She then did three years of service in the Israeli military before heading to the U.S. to work towards her PhD.

Koller earned her doctorate from Stanford in 1993. After completing postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley, she returned to Stanford as a professor, remaining at the university for nineteen years. It was at Stanford that the idea for Coursera was born, during a forum on faculty-student engagement by then-Vice Provost John Bravman. While the forum itself didn’t create anything substantial, Koller was reminded of the discussion during a Google Faculty Summit talk about YouTube two months later. She brought her ideas back to Bravman, who secured her a seed grant to develop the technology and technique for effective online education.

At the same time that Koller was doing her initial experiments in taking her courses online, fellow Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Andrew Ng were also offering online computer courses. The three classes, a machine learning class, a database class, and an AI class, each saw an enrollment of at least 100,000 students. Seeing the potential of the format, Koller joined with Ng to create a forum to provide wider access to higher education.

In 2012, the co-founders raised their first round of venture capital, eventually securing $85 million in funding. Koller left Stanford that year to focus full-time on their new educational platform, Coursera. The platform partners with universities and organizations around the world to offer top-quality online courses. The courses are free and available to anyone interested, with certificates of completion available for a fee. By 2016, Coursera was offering over 1,300 courses, providing educational materials to over 20 million students worldwide.

Koller left day-to-day leadership at Coursera in 2016, though she remains the educational platform’s Co-chairman. In August 2016, she joined CalicoLabs. As the company’s Chief Computing Officer, she returns to her previous passion, developing machine learning tools to support human health.

Koller has earned wide recognition throughout her academic career. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2004, the first winner of the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in Computing Sciences in 2008, a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2011, and an American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow in 2014. She has authored over 200 peer-reviewed publications, with work appearing in journals including Science, Cell, and Nature Genetics.

(Sources used to write this profile include a June 2015 Wall Street Journal piece, an August 2016 TechCrunch piece, the Coursera website, and the entrepreneur’s LinkedIn profile)

Companies and Investments

CalicoLabs (Chief Computing Officer), Coursera (Co-founder, Co-chairman, former Co-CEO), Stanford University (Professor), UC Berkeley (Postdoctoral Researcher)

Lessons Learned

I think there are universities that are going to be at risk from this, but it is not necessarily the lower level ones. I think it is the ones that don’t give careful thought to the implications of this transformation and how it impacts the value proposition that they provide to their students that will have trouble. I think many universities go into this or have traditionally gone into this with the assumption that their primary value for their students is the dissemination or delivery of content. Content is becoming a lot more readily available, through many open educational resources, and universities had better be more than just the content they have been providing to the students and also more than just a degree. So, what are the value-added services that the universities provide? Is this the support with tutoring? Is this internship tutoring with the ability to get involved in research with a faculty member? There are a lot of other performances with the university experience that do provide huge value, but you really have to clarify that with the students and really execute on that. If they don’t do that, then they are the ones that are going to suffer. (Daphne Koller on how adapting to technology and society keeps a service effective and relevant, in an interview with Forbes)

I think it's impossible and foolish to try to stop the progress of technology so as to save people's jobs, when machines can actually do those jobs better. What I think will happen to pathologists is they will move up the food chain, in the same way that we've seen other professions move up the food chain. I think teachers will move up the food chain. I think that the right thing to have happen is to transform professions rather than trying to keep them unchanged just because we don't want people to have to transform their jobs. (Daphne Koller on embracing technology and transforming professions, rather than rejecting technology to maintain status quo jobs, in an interview with EconTalk)

I'm in a field, to be in a fortunate position where I had two such directions to pursue. And making a decision is just hard. And I made the decision that I felt would give me the biggest opportunity to make an impact in the world. When we were starting Coursera back in, or making the decision to start Coursera, back in the late fall of 2011, was when Steve Jobs passed away. And one of his favorite quotes that was repeated often at that time, is that, your goal in life should be to make a dent in the universe. And this is my dent. (Daphne Koller on making choices based on where you can make the most impact, in an interview with EconTalk)

Inspiring Quotes

Were here to put a dent in the universe.

Steve Jobs

Daphne Koller's Quotes

Ultimately it will come down to quality of content. Platform and technology also matter, but great courses from the best instructors are key to success.

Daphne Koller

We believe education is a basic human right as opposed to privilege.

Daphne Koller

I think as a society we take big leaps when things that used to be viewed as privileges are turned to the point that they are viewed as a right.

Daphne Koller

To me, the big success will be when the right to education at all levels as part of the fabric of ones life becomes something thats recognized as part of the societal mores.

Daphne Koller

Influential Books